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Endangered whales, sea turtles off coast delay commercial crab season, restrict recreational harvest

The start of the commercial Dungeness crab season will be delayed for the third straight year because of endangered marine animals feeding in high concentrations off the coast that could be ensnared if crabbers were permitted to set their pots.

It is not clear when the commercial season, which traditionally begins Nov. 15, will be allowed to proceed. State officials said they would issue their next assessment on the presence of endangered whales and sea turtles on or before Nov. 22.

The commercial fleet will stay tied up at dock in the meantime and hope there may be a way to get Dungeness crab on Thanksgiving tables, though that particular North Coast holiday tradition appears under threat.

A Nov. 22 decision would leave little time to soak crab traps and get the crustaceans ashore, processed and out to market in time for Turkey Day, Nov. 25.

But the delay, announced Monday, was not unexpected, given recent surveys showing large numbers of endangered humpback whales, as well as a few stray blue whales and five sightings of extremely rare Pacific leatherback turtles off the coast roughly between Point Reyes and Half Moon Bay, and out to the Farallon Islands.

“The department — their hands are tied,” said veteran Bodega Bay fisherman Dick Ogg, vice president of the Bodega Bay Fishermens’ Marketing Association and a member of both the California Dungeness crab Task Force and the Dungeness crab Fishing Gear Working Group, both of which advise on fishery management and regulations. “We’re held captive by the regulations, so we’ve got to understand that.”

Hundreds of people who would usually flock to the Sonoma Coast this weekend for the start of the recreational Dungeness crab harvest — a season steeped in cherished traditions and reunions of family and friends — face a changed landscape, as well.

Under newly established regulations now in effect for the sport fishery, California Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham has prohibited the use of standard crab traps for at least the first few weeks of the season between the Sonoma-Mendocino County line and Lopez Point on the Big Sur Coast.

Standard traps can be used outside of that zone.

The recreational restrictions are based on the same risk assessments that inform the start of the lucrative commercial Dungeness crab season, which brings in around $60 million a year to commercial skippers.

Both actions are intended to leave coastal waters free of the thick, long lines that extend from buoys on the surface to heavy pots on the ocean floor while foraging whales and scarce marine turtles are still present in the region and could become entangled.

Recreational crabbers can still start fishing Saturday, but only if they use hoop nets or snares — gear that requires frequent tending and isn’t left in the ocean for hours or days at a time before someone pulls them up and harvests what’s inside.

Deployed from shore or from a boat, both have to be monitored and pulled frequently so as not to lose the catch drawn by the bait, said Ryan Bartling, senior environmental scientist Department of Fish and Wildlife. In contrast, a traditional crab trap can be left for days unattended.

Though the trap prohibition is a drastic change, “people still have other opportunities” to catch crab, Bartling said. “It’s better than a total closure or delay,” he said.

Many recreational crabbers began canceling plans for coastal getaways, however, even before formal word on the trap ban was issued late Monday afternoon.

“We’ve been getting calls all day,” said David Robinson, park manager for Sonoma County Regional Parks Park, which fills about 200 campsites each year around this time at Doran and Westside parks in Bodega Bay.

Many parties book the same campsite each year and have for 20, 30, even 40 years, he said, and may only see each other that one time a year. But after learning they might not be able to use their crab pots this year, some are gambling on next year instead, Robinson said.

It’s a lot to give up, he said, but especially for those coming from out of county or even out of state, it’s hard to wait until the last minute to decide what to do, as well.

Robinson said the crowds were expected to be reduced enough that, rather than expand to 12-hour days as usual for November, his department was keeping operations at Spud Point Marina to 8-hours-a-day, pending changed demand.

This year’s restrictions on crabbing were based on surveys and assessments of marine life concentrations conducted by air and ocean vessel over the past two months, primarily focused on populations of endangered humpback and blue whales, as well as rare, critically endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtles.

All three species were at the center of a 2017 lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity after a spike in whale entanglements. The nonprofit conservation group argued that endangered species were becoming snagged in fishing gear used in feeding hot spots without sufficient regulation or accountability.

Commercial regulations that have since been established are based on a Risk Assessment and Mitigation Program that allows the state Fish and Wildlife director to adjust the November-to-June season based on the presence of endangered marine animals and concentration of fishing gear.

Recreational regulations adopted this year and which took effect Monday are intended to even the playing field and ensure entanglements involving recreational gear, which have been documented in the past, are unlikely. They include the authorization for the Fish and Wildlife director to delay or curtail the season to avoid snagging marine mammals.

Other provisions focus on preventing crabbing gear from being abandoned and becoming “ghost gear,” which puts marine life at particular risk, by improving identification of gear and accountability for its whereabouts.

There are new requirements for buoy markers; limits of 10 crab traps per person; and $2.42 crab trap validation fees, regardless of age, to help track recreational crabbing effort. Recreational crabbers also must service their traps every nine days.

Tim Elie, vice president of Outdoor Pro Shop in Cotati, said he’s been trying to prepare for the new regulations, even before word of crab trap restrictions began circulating. But all 2,000 red floats that he had stocked to meet buoy requirements were sold out by last week, and supply chain issues could put a damper on alternative trap styles, though he hopes he has plenty.

But whether everyone hears about the restrictions is something else.

“Everybody wants to follow the rules,” Elie said. “It just takes time.”

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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