The California Department of Fish and Wildlife is throwing cold water on the dreams of crab lovers, delaying the start of the commercial season by at least a week and imposing restrictions on recreational crabbers on how they capture crab in the waters just off the Bay Area coastline. And it’s sending any Bay Area diner who equates Thanksgiving dinner with Dungeness delights into eddies of worry.
The department has delayed the Nov. 15 start of commercial crabbing in Fishing Zones 3 and 4, the area between the Sonoma-Mendocino county line and Lopez Point in Monterey County, and it has imposed a temporary restriction on trap use by recreational crabbers, whose season opens Nov. 6. While commercial crabbers have seen delays in the past, this is the first time restrictions have included recreational fishing.
The reason? Fish and wildlife experts are concerned for the safety of humpback and blue whales and leatherback turtles in the area, which could become entangled in crab pot lines.
Under the temporary rules, recreational crabbers can still fish in the area, but they can use only hoop nets or crab snares, which produce less successful rewards.
The restrictions have angered many sports crabbers, including Mike Phi, of San Mateo. Phi understands the need to protect the whales but is far from convinced that recreational crabbing poses a danger to the animals. And he believes the plan to close certain zones, while allowing others to open, only results in overcrowding.
“I’m not against supporting the whales,” Phi said, “but show me data where whales are snagged by sport pots.”
Phi, who has gone crab fishing all his life and favors deep-water crabbing, says he won’t go out this season. By the time you pull a hoop net up from 200 feet of water, he says, the crab will have all crawled out.
Meanwhile, Ben Platt, president of the California Coast Crab Association, is upset by the delay of yet another commercial fishing season. He said the Dungeness industry — California’s only really viable, remaining fishing industry — has gone to extremes to protect the whales, and there have been few interactions over the last 10 years.
Platt said he sympathizes with the sports fishermen, but if the state shuts down the commercial enterprises, it should also prevent the recreational crabbers from going out.
“A line with a buoy attached is a line with a buoy attached,” Platt said. “It doesn’t matter if it belongs to a sports fleet or a commercial fleet. If they’re shutting us down, then we believe they should shut down everyone.”
The current delay hits particularly hard, Platt says, after COVID-19 and a succession of shortened seasons. Since 2015, there have been delays in all but one commercial season. The 2020 Dungeness season was delayed two months. Trying to find crews when captains can’t promise work is making it even more difficult.
But there is hope. The association has asked the state to do another assessment now, as some people believe the recent winter storms may have triggered the whales’ migration response. If the restrictions and delays can be lifted in a week or so, there is a chance of getting crab for Thanksgiving, he said.
Areas to the north and south of the restricted zones will be allowed to open on time, and recreational crabbers will be able to use traditional crab-trapping methods.
“This is the first time the recreational Dungeness crab fishery is subject to similar measures as commercial crabbers to help protect whales and sea turtles,” CDFW Director Charlton H. Bonham said. “We recognize that change takes time but thank all Californians who treasure these recreational fishing opportunities. We continue to value and appreciate the work put in by the fleet and the California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group.”
While the start of the recreational season may look different, Bonham says, the process allowed the agency to open up some parts of the coast to recreational crab traps and the entire coast to recreational crabbing by other fishing methods.
“This shows there is a way to partner more closely with the recreational fishery to protect California’s whales and sea turtles while still providing meaningful recreational and commercial fishing opportunities,” Bonham said.
The agency worked with a broad range of scientific partners, agencies and the California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group to collect and analyze information about the presence of humpback whales, blue whales and leatherback sea turtles across each fishing zone. Aerial surveys, vessel-based surveys and satellite telemetry data indicate aggregations of humpback whales and several leatherback sea turtles still present within Fishing Zones 3 and 4.
A Risk Assessment and Mitigation Program (RAMP), established to allow the fishing industry to operate while protecting sea life, sets regulations for the commercial fishery, as well as imposes new regulations adopted by the Fish and Game Commission for the recreational Dungeness crab fishery.
Commercial crabbing in Fishing Zones 1 and 2, north of the Bay Area, is not scheduled to open until Dec. 1, and CDFW has not yet evaluated the need for any actions to reduce marine life entanglement risk in these zones.
Bay Area restrictions are set to be re-evaluated on or before Nov. 21, meaning the delay of commercial crabbing could be just a week. Or it could be longer. There’s no rushing a humpback whale.
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