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Dungeness crab fleet readies for opener as weather hampers season start for some

The wait for fresh, locally sourced crab appears to be about to end.

A monthlong delay in the opening of the Dungeness season will conclude this weekend, allowing the commercial fleet to get out on the water and start pulling in traps on Sunday.

But even after cooling their heels on shore through the lucrative Thanksgiving season, many small-boat captains in the North Bay plan to wait even longer for ocean conditions to calm, so it’s safer to deploy their heavy fishing equipment.

“It’s day by day,” veteran Bodega Bay fisherman Tony Anello said. The forecast calls for large swells over the next few days, with a high surf advisory in effect.

Along with last-minute negotiations over an opening price, the weather was just “one more hurdle that we have to cross, after a dozen others,” Anello said.

It will be at least two more weeks before the season starts in coastal waters north of the Mendocino County line, where routine, preseason testing for the second time has shown the crab need more time to bulk up before harvest. If delayed again, the North Coast district season could be postponed until Jan. 15, the latest it would open under California Fish and Wildlife rules. Oregon and Washington coastal waters remain closed, with Puget Sound now serving as a lone source for fresh Dungeness.

The bar seems to rise with each passing year before the North Bay fleet can set out in pursuit of its most important catch - one valued last year at $63.5 million statewide, virtually all of it caught from Monterey north.

Dungeness crab landings at Bodega Bay were valued at about $5.5 million in 2018. But those figures are for the calendar year - not the fall-to-spring season - so the accounting does not reflect the loss of 2½ months at the end of last season, when California crabbers were abruptly ordered to withdraw their gear from the ocean to safeguard imperiled migratory whale species.

The same issue caused the monthlong delay at the beginning of this season, after aerial surveys and other observations prompted California Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham to gauge the risk of whale entanglement too high to start it on time, traditionally Nov. 15 for the Sonoma Coast and further south.

He postponed the launch one week, and then again for three more weeks, after crabbers in Bodega Bay persuaded the fleets in San Francisco and Half Moon Bay there were still too many humpback and blue whales feeding in the fishing grounds to risk crowding the area with commercial crab gear that could ensnare them.

Commercial crabbers simply have too much at stake.

Humpback and blue whale populations that migrate north each year to feed in Monterey Bay, the Gulf of the Farallones and other northern waters are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, as are Pacific leatherback sea turtles.

Under the terms of a legal settlement in a 2017 lawsuit over whale and sea turtle entanglements, even a single incident could prompt closure of all or part of the fishery. So commercial crabbers chose to wait for the season to open rather than risk losing it.

Recent storms appear to have dispersed forage fish concentrations, as fishermen had predicted, and a substantial reduction in whales was observed between Point Reyes and Monterey during a Dec. 3 aerial survey, state Fish and Wildlife officials said.

But the time off - particularly given last year’s shortened season - is another economic blow around the harbor, especially for deckhands, who generally work intermittently in the best of times.

So they’re eager to get out to sea and get a paycheck - even, likely, pushing their luck more than they might, given high seas, said Bodega Bay fisherman Dick Ogg, who was headed down toward Point Reyes on Friday.

“We don’t have the choice. We have to go fishing,” said Ogg, vice president of the Bodega Bay Fishermen’s Marketing Association. “You’re kind of up against the wall because guys need money.”

He said the tight-knit community of crabbers will look out for one another. They also may make fewer trips back and forth than usual to pick up extra traps and unload catch.

The opening wholesale price is $3 a pound, a quarter below last year, Ogg said.

The commercial opener comes as the state Fish and Game Commission, which regulates recreational fishing, this week authorized its staff to begin developing new rules for the recreational crab fishery so that sport crabbers will now have to take greater responsibility for preventing entanglements.

State Fish and Wildlife environmental scientist Ryan Bartling said likely measures include new trap limits and rules for how frequently they’re checked and cleared of marine life; a stamp program, so officials can better track who and how many are participating, as well as improve outreach; and enhanced gear markings to better determine what kind of gear is involved if an entanglement occurs.

“We’re trying to take a common sense approach,” Bartling said.

The department also would like the commission to establish a procedure for sport season delays and midseason adjustments similar to those in place for commercial crabbers to minimize risk for marine wildlife, Bartling said.

During the commercial delay, residents and business owners around Bodega Bay have been working to ensure no one goes hungry, stocking a makeshift food pantry at the local marina and sponsoring meals for those in the fishing community who needed help. The effort has been supported through $2,000 in donations from the Bodega Bay Firefighters Association and from Waves of Compassion, according to Patty Ginochio, vice president of the nonprofit charitable organization.

Six restaurants have joined behind a Feed it Forward program first launched at Ginochio’s Kitchen, run by Patty Ginochio’s husband and daughter, through which donors can pay for a meal in advance for someone who needs it later. Other efforts included lifts around town, discounted rooms and Thanksgiving meals - services that were offered to upward of 100 people, Ginochio said.

“It’s helped the guys out,” Fishermen’s Marketing Association President Lorne Edwards said.

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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