Loitering Whales Delay California Crab Season Opener

Crab traps, Bodega Bay, California. (Courthouse News photo / Chris Marshall)

(CN) — With an abundance of whales off the coast yet to begin their winter migration south, California’s renowned commercial Dungeness crab season will be delayed for the second consecutive year.

Scheduled to open Nov. 15, commercial crab fleets on the Central Coast and in San Francisco Bay Area will remain docked until at least December. The decision — spurred by new laws meant to protect endangered whales and turtles from fishing nets and other gear — means fresh local Dungeness won’t be available in grocery stores in time for Thanksgiving.

State officials said the delay was necessary after dozens of humpback whales were observed last week in popular fishing areas off the Pacific coast. Once the whales begin to migrate out to warmer water, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife will open the commercial season.

“While no one wants to delay the season, the department and the Working Group feel a delay is necessary to reduce the risk of entanglement,” said department director Charlton H. Bonham. “The fleet has gone to great lengths to be more nimble in order to protect whales and turtles, and the results are promising.”

Unlike previous years in which the season was delayed due to toxic algae blooms, Wednesday’s decision is the result of regulations born from a federal lawsuit and officially implemented this week.

The Center for Biological Diversity sued the state in 2017 for failing to protect whales and sea turtles after entanglements in crab gear spiked for three consecutive years. The lawsuit not only cut that year’s fishing season short, it resulted in an agreement by the state to promote ropeless fishing gear along with the strict new triggers for fishery closures.

The entanglements, which often cut into the whales’ flesh and can lead to drowning, have dropped dramatically in recent years. Each incident involving humpback whales, blue whales and leatherback sea turtles are viewed by environmentalists as clear violations of the federal Endangered Species Act.

Since the lawsuit, fewer whales have been found caught in fishing gear off the West Coast

Though it will certainly cause financial harm by keeping fresh crab out of stores, the California Coast Crab Association commended the move in a statement.

“We support any decision that will allow for the best commercial crab fishing season opportunities for our fishermen,” said Ben Platt, association president.

Platt called the decision “prudent,” noting the likelihood that a single whale entanglement could further delay or shut down the season. However, Platt remains concerned that the state’s new rules could have a devastating long-term effect on fishermen if delays become routine.

“Regulators seem to be more concerned about the optics in the media of the rare occurrence of an entangled whale than the fact that the populations of these marine mammals, which migrate off our coast, are skyrocketing, and may soon be eligible for removal from the Endangered Species List.”

The latest delay follows an unprecedent move this past November by Bay Area crabbers, who voluntarily decided to postpone their season to prevent encounters with protected whales. The Bodega Bay Fishermen’s Association rallied its members and made a unanimous decision to give the whales more time to migrate.   

There is good news looming for the industry, however, as there are no immediate concerns about another toxic algae bloom.

Unusually warm Pacific temperatures generated a bloom that docked commercial crab fleets for months in 2015-16, costing the industry millions. The season was delayed after crabs tested positive for high levels of a hazardous neurotoxin called domoic acid.

Eating the toxic crabs can cause nausea, breathing problems and seizures in humans. The fishing ban led then-Governor Jerry Brown to petition Congress for disaster relief, citing more than $48 million in economic damages.

Once storms return to California and spur whales toward their traditional winter breeding grounds in Mexico, the department says at least tainted crab meat won’t be an issue.

“This year for the first time in a long time it looks like we don’t have to worry about domoic acid, which is good news,” said Fish and Wildlife director Bonham.

The latest postponement stretches from Mendocino to the Bay Area, and farther south to San Luis Obispo. Bonham said a decision will be made on whether the Dec. 1 season opener scheduled for the northern part of the state will go off as planned. Meanwhile, the statewide opener for recreational fishing is set to begin this weekend.

State Senator Mike McGuire, whose sprawling district stretches from Marin County north to the Oregon border, is optimistic the delay will eventually lead to fresh Dungeness crab being available in time for the holidays.

“Grateful for the hard-working men and women of the California crab fleet. They work incredibly hard and are committed to a sustainable harvest,” McGuire said on Twitter. “Stay tuned & start warming that butter!”

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