Early close to Dungeness crab season just one more strike against commercial fleet

‘Loving it doesn’t pay the bills.’ Commercial crabbers fear continued shortening of commercial seasons will force more people out of the fishery.|

The commercial Dungeness crab season has been cut short for most of California for a fifth successive year in an effort to reduce potentially fatal whale entanglements in fishing gear.

State Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham announced Thursday that all crab pots and vertical lines must be removed from the ocean south of Point Arena by April 15 — 2½ months before the commercial season’s traditional June 30 close. The season also started six weeks late, with crews allowed to put only 50% of their gear in the water at first.

Though not entirely a surprise, the early finish comes as a significant blow to a struggling fleet that has yet to make up for the repeated loss of its lucrative Thanksgiving and Christmas markets in the beginning of the season.

And with the salmon season canceled this year because of a collapse in king salmon stocks, the inability of commercial crews to harvest crab for a longer period this spring may mean some fishermen and women decide to pack it in.

“It’s a business,” said veteran Bodega Bay fisherman Tal Roseberry. “Most people get into it because they love it. But if it doesn’t operate in the black, and you’re not able to feed your family, put a roof over your head, you have to start looking at something else. Loving it doesn’t pay the bills.”

This year’s early close also comes as state, federal and nongovernmental conservation agencies are putting increased funding and support behind whale-safe “ropeless” or “pop-up” gear in development over recent years to allow for crabbers to extend their efforts during the shoulder seasons, even when the giant marine mammals are present.

Instead of fixed gear, with a crab trap on the ocean floor connected to a floating buoy by a long vertical line, the experimental style keeps all the gear together on the sea floor until it’s triggered by a timer, acoustic signal or some other mechanism, releasing the buoy that then rises to the top.

Many commercial crabbers have been dismissive of the idea, convinced it can’t meet their needs and concerned that costs for the new equipment will put it out of reach. They say failure rates are high, and the fact that surface buoys don’t mark their location is an invitation for different crews to get their crab pots piled up.

The next thing you know, “we’ve created a whale gill net,” said veteran Bodega Bay fisherman Tony Anello.

There’s been some reluctance on the part of commercial captains to apply for the state permits required to experiment, even though it would allow them to continue catching crab into June.

“The ropeless gear is a non-starter, as far as we’re concerned,” said Crescent City crabber Ben Platt, president of the California Coast Crab Association, which represents about 140 commercial Dungeness crab permit holders in California, including about two dozen in Bodega Bay.

“We’re trying to keep ourselves alive, and we want to spare the wildlife, too,” said Dick Ogg, vice president of the Bodega Bay Fisherman’s Marketing Association. “There’s a lot of tension around pop-up gear.”

Members of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and conservation groups are bullish about the new traps, however, with several manufacturers working on or ready to test equipment.

Ryan Bartling, a senior environmental scientist with the state, said it may that only a segment of the fleet decides to use it in the end, but it would allow for crabbing during more of the traditional Nov. 15 to June 30 season.

“I think it’s within reach,” he said. “What the timeline looks like, I’m a little uncertain. But the technology is there. It’s just making it all work together.”

Geoff Shester, senior scientist and California campaign director for Oceana, said he has worked with crabbers who have tried some types of gear during its development and seen it function well in the ocean, but says they need to test it, find the strengths and weaknesses so they can be addressed.

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” he said. “It’s going to take some trial and error.”

He said the whole effort is intended to allow crabbers to spend more time on the ocean without harming wildlife or violating rules, but it only works if the fleet participates.

“We’re trying to do this in a way that’s really going to work,” Shester said. “We want them to stay employed.”

Dungeness crab and chinook salmon have long been the mainstays of the North Coast’s fisheries, even as salmon populations declined over recent decades along with their freshwater spawning habitat.

But the region’s crab fishery has been in tumult for most of the past decade, first because of a protracted marine heat wave that spurred a toxic algae bloom, delaying the 2015-16 season start by more than four months.

After that, a spike in whale entanglements prompted the Center for Biological Diversity to sue state Fish and Wildlife over fishery management it said illegally put federally protected blue and humpback whales, as well as endangered sea turtles, at risk.

A Risk Assessment Mitigation Program developed since provides a framework for surveys and monitoring to determine when whales are present in high concentrations in the fishing grounds and what management decisions should be made.

The aim is to ensure crabbing boats avoid whales foraging in advance of their journeys south in winter and on spring journeys north. The result has been both late starts and early closures south of the Sonoma-Mendocino county line for most seasons since 2018-19.

Crabbers who don’t go north miss out on the opportunity to provide crab for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s holidays for which, traditionally, most of their fresh, live catch has been sold.

Though most seasons open for Chinese New Year in January, the glut of fresh crab that comes on the market in January and February most years has altered the markets, depressing prices, especially this year, in part due to inflation, to levels not seen since the 1980s, several fishermen said.

But so far this year, there have not been any whales ensnared in commercial crab gear — a relief after last year, when three entanglements occurred in rapid succession in March 2022, two in Monterey Bay and one off the San Mateo Coast.

There were four total in 2022, as well as six entanglements in unidentified gear that count toward a three-year rolling score that the commercial crabbing fleet has exceeded under the rules.

Meanwhile, it does not appear whales are abundant in the crabbing grounds yet this year, but harsh winter weather has made it difficult to conduct full, consistent whale surveys in recent weeks, Bartling said. Once whales do arrive in northerly waters, they tend to come in quickly and in high numbers.

So even though state Fish and Wildlife and the stakeholder working group that works on fishery management under the whale-safe rules at first were going to recommend a 50% gear reduction for mid-April, the decision ultimately was made to close the season, surprising and frustrating mostly smaller boats like those in Bodega Bay who hoped to keep fishing.

“It’s just totally devastating,” Anello said.

“The bottom line,” said Platt, “is it really sucks, especially with no salmon. It’s really hard for us because we don’t want to get any more entanglements either, but we need to make a living.

“There’s really no easy answer for this.”

Roseberry fished crab out of Crescent City over the winter, drawn by the abundance of crustaceans up north, and returned to Bodega Bay about a month ago. He was at the port Thursday when word of a complete closure came down.

“Everyone was kind of anticipating to crab fish through the end of the season, being that we don’t have a salmon season this year,” he said. “This is going to be a blow.”

“Finally, it’s time to look in the mirror and figure out if your really want to keep doing this or not. I just really don’t see any sustainability in it at this point if we don’t see some changes,” Roseberry said.

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

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