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California commercial Dungeness crab harvest again delayed

The season could open in mid-December if whales continue to migrate out of fishing grounds.|

The commercial harvest of Dungeness crab off the North Coast and Central California has once again been delayed due to large groups of federally protected humpback whales still foraging in the fishing grounds.

They’re fewer in number than in late October, when state Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham first hit pause on the season’s start. But the whales still remain at concentrations high enough to raise the risk of ensnaring them in fishing gear if the fleet were to deploy the thousands of traps used each season.

The whales also exceed thresholds established three years ago to more closely manage the commercial fishery in a way that reduces entanglement of marine mammals protected under the Endangered Species Act — notably blue and humpback whales and leatherback sea turtles.

Recent surveys found groups of humpbacks feeding off Point Reyes, San Francisco Bay and Monterey Bay.

Thus, recreational crabbers south of Point Arena in Mendocino County also will be prohibited from using traditional traps for the time being, though they can use hoop nets or snares.

North of Point Arena, the whale count was low, so sport crabbers will be permitted, beginning at 9 a.m. Nov. 28, to start the season there with regular crab traps.

Members of the California Dungeness crab Fishing Gear Working Group had recommended holding off on traps to ensure no entanglements occurred, given whale abundance elsewhere, but Bonham and his staff determined he had to make the determination based on marine life in the zone at issue, he wrote in his final risk assessment.

Geoff Shester, California campaign director and senior scientist for Oceana, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the health of the world’s ocean ecosystems, said the group was satisfied with the outcome even while acknowledging continued risk.

“We support the decision by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to safeguard humpback whales from the risk of entanglement, providing them with safe feeding grounds off the central California coast as they finish their annual migration,” said Shester, a member of the fishing gear working group. “We commend the ongoing efforts to find ways to catch Dungeness crab while minimizing the risk to whales and sea turtles, and we remain committed to working with all stakeholders to continue to find the best solutions to ensure a healthy crab fishery and safer passage for wildlife off our shores.”

North of Sonoma County, the commercial crab season will be delayed not because of whales but because of quality testing that determined the crabs need to grow more meat before they are suitable for harvest.

If the next round of quality tests is positive, the commercial season in that zone will start at 12:01 a.m. Dec. 16.

The next risk assessment for entanglement south of Point Arena will be on or before Dec. 7, Bonham said in a news release.

If the number of whales is low enough, the season in the south also could begin Dec. 16.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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