Northern California crab season to open amid scrutiny over whale entanglements

The commercial Dungeness crab fishery will open north of Sonoma County on Monday after several delays needed to allow the crustaceans to mature before the harvest begins.

The northern season, which usually starts Dec. 1, is opening two months after commercial crews started catching crab off the Sonoma Coast and areas south to Morro Bay - a region that last season accounted for about half of the more than ?$68 million earned by the state’s crabbing fleet. The remainder came from the district between Point Arena and the Oregon border.

The North Coast’s iconic Dungeness crab harvest is the state’s second-most valuable ocean fishery but has been disrupted in recent years by naturally occurring biotoxin outbreaks. The fishery has also seen an escalating number of whale entanglements in crab gear, encounters that often prove deadly for the marine mammals.

The timing of crab season means the ocean is loaded with gear during peak whale migration season, a particular concern this year, according to one advocate, because of reports that some crabbers who would normally fish the central district have waited for more northerly waters to open.

“I think we’re going to see a lot of crab coming out of there, which obviously endangers whales,” said Steve Jones, a spokesman for the San ?Francisco-based Center for Biological Diversity, which sued the state wildlife agency last fall for failing to protect threatened whale and turtle species as required under the Endangered Species Act.

Commercial crabbing accounts for the vast majority of the cases in which the type of fishing gear involved can be identified, though experts say a variety of equipment and other marine debris can play a role.

New regulations have been approved to pressure crabbers to ensure they retrieve lost traps, buoys and lines. They also are urged to utilize best-management practices to avoid slack, broken or floating lines that are most prone to injuring and entangling whales, sea turtles and other creatures, even after the season ends.

“We’ve done everything we can: gathered up gear, tightening up our lines, shortening buoy lengths,” said Bodega Bay skipper Dick Ogg. “Guys are doing great.”

But Ogg also said he believes the crab industry has been targeted unfairly for a problem with multiple causes that was exacerbated during recent, warm-water years by shifting whale migration patterns.

Ogg sits on a panel convened by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife in partnership with the California Ocean Protection Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service, and also has piloted gear retrieval programs in advance of legislation requiring crab permit holders to repurchase found traps.

Crabbers “are doing everything they can to try to mitigate this potential issue,” he said, “and I really feel like there’s a lot of effort.”

Reports of whale entanglement off the western United States did drop last year from the record of ?71 observed cases in 2016, primarily off the California Coast around San Francisco and Monterey bays.

NOAA Fisheries said it had received 41 entanglement reports as of Dec. 11 - 30 of them confirmed, according to preliminary data.

Jones said regulatory agencies and the crab industry have made a start but need to adopt more stringent measures to avoid injuries and deaths. Among other things, the organization hopes the state will agree to invoke emergency regulations in instances where entanglement hot spots occur.

The density of gear “makes an impossible minefield for the whales to navigate,” he said.

Commercial crabbers can begin soaking gear at 8:01 a.m. today in waters off the coasts of Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte counties, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. They can start hauling out crabs at 12:01 a.m. Monday.

The northern season runs through July 15.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or 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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