Restrictions lifted on beleaguered North Bay Dungeness crab fleet

Southerly migration of federally protected whales means commercial and recreational crabbers can now fish at full strength.|

The state has lifted restrictions on recreational and commercial crabbers now that foraging whales have mostly departed the fishing grounds off the central coast and North Bay Area.

The restrictions were imposed earlier this season to reduce the risk of marine animals becoming entangled in gear.

Beginning this weekend, commercial crabbers south of Mendocino County can deploy 100% of their allotted crab pots, instead of operating at 50% reduction, as they have for the past two weeks.

Sport fishers, limited to hoop nets and snares since the recreational season opened Nov. 5, also can resume using traditional crab traps Saturday. They were prohibited earlier in the season.

The restrictions were part of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s effort to reduce the risk to federally protected marine animals, notably leatherback sea turtles and blue and humpback whales. Humpback whales, especially, have been feeding later and later each winter in the same areas favored by the commercial crabbing fleet.

The start of the commercial season in the fishing zone south of the Sonoma-Mendocino county line already had been delayed six weeks. The fleet was given the green light to fish Dec. 31, but only with half the crab pots for which they are permitted.

Crabbers missed out on what historically had been lucrative Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s markets. Those are increasingly out of reach, given new fishery management rules that prioritize whale safety.

That latest risk assessment in more southerly waters shows humpback whales that had been lingering around Point Reyes and the Farallon Islands have headed off toward Mexico and Central America for the most part and are now at seasonal lows.

Geoff Shester, California campaign director of Oceana, a nonprofit conservation organization, and a member of the state’s Dungeness crab Fishing Gear Working Group commended the state for taking successful action to avert entanglements.

“The restrictions put on the fleet this season have served their purpose, as no whales were observed entangled, and now most humpbacks have left for the winter,” Shester said in a statement. “We wish the fishing community safety and success as the restrictions are lifted while remaining cautious consistent with the Department’s Fleet Advisory to remain vigilant and avoid setting gear in areas where whales are transiting or foraging.

“Far too many humpback whales have been entangled in recent years and we can’t afford any more entanglements,” he wrote.

Extreme weather and rough seas proved an impediment this season, however, as have prices, which so far have kept the commercial fleet north of Sonoma County tied up at dock.

Dick Ogg, vice president of the Bodega Bay Fisherman’s Marketing Association, was busy Thursday with his crew prepping gear on a rare clear day so they could try to fish this weekend.

He said the gear restriction had reduced the pressure on people to get out on the ocean in the worst conditions but said some had feared the state would leave the fleet at 50%.

“I think we’re going to be OK,” Ogg said. “We’re just doing what we can, with the weather the way it is, to do the best we can. We’re doing all we can to make it work, and that’s all we can do: make it work.”

Crabbing boats in more northern waters have been authorized to fish at full strength since their season finally opened New Year’s Eve. But after starting the season on time last season and earning $4.75 or $5 a pound, the offers this season so far have been closer to $1.85 and $2.25, “neither of which is acceptable,” said Crescent City fisherman Ben Platt, president of the California Coast Crab Association. “Nobody wants to go for that cheap.”

Whales and sea turtles are vulnerable to becoming ensnared in thick vertical lines that connect crab pots set with bait on the ocean floor to floating buoys on the ocean surface that mark trap locations. A whole line of traps is typically laid out and, in rough conditions, the lines themselves can cross and become tangled.

Animals that get wrapped up can be pulled under or lacerated by weighted lines, sometimes dragging them for miles until they become exhausted and drown.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan (she/her) 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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