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Safeguards for whales delay California’s commercial crab season for second straight year

Whales feeding in abundance off the California coast have delayed the commercial Dungeness crab season for the second consecutive year, the result of new rules intended to protect whales and other marine wildlife from entanglements in fishing gear — and any additional restrictions that arise in such cases.

Chuck Bonham, director of the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, on Wednesday postponed the season opener until at least Dec. 1, pending further aerial surveys and signs that whales had begun migrating from fishing grounds.

The commercial crab season traditionally starts Nov. 15 in waters south of the Sonoma-Mendocino county line, early enough to put fresh, succulent crab on the Thanksgiving menu.

The holiday season is when most California crabbers earn the bulk of their income for the year, harvesting $51.8 million worth of Dungeness in 2019 in one of the state’s most consistently lucrative fisheries. Landings in Bodega Bay reached $5.6 million in 2019, according to state data.

With less than two weeks before the season’s start, however, recent aerial surveys have turned up large concentrations of humpback whales, as well as blue whales, along the central and northern coast, said Ryan Bartling, senior environmental scientist for Fish and Wildlife’s marine region. Both populations are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act .

Anchovy and other forage fish also are bountiful in near-shore waters, and crabbers and others say the whales will likely be around until the first big storm.

Bonham’s decision means a second consecutive year with a delayed start to commercial crabbing, meaning no fresh Dungeness to sustain North Coast Thanksgiving traditions.

Fishing industry representatives nonetheless supported the delay, given the fact that even one or two accidents involving a whale could trigger closure or curtailment of the fishery.

“We want to protect these animals, and the Thanksgiving market is a wonderful thing. We want to be able to provide crab to people,” said Dick Ogg, vice president of the Bodega Bay Fishermen’s Marketing Association and longtime member of a state advisory panel formed in 2015 to address problems caused by crabbing gear. ”But we, as a group, are trying to make sure that we have a full season, and that’s not going to happen if we end up interacting with animals, as it would be right now.“

Former Windsor resident Ben Platt, now living in Crescent City and president of California Coast Crab Association, said fishermen and fish processing interests in his group agree, despite disappointment about the Thanksgiving market.

“We’re not having any pushback about delaying the season another two weeks,” said Platt, whose organization represents most of the fleet and the state’s processors. “They’re aware that having this rule could end their season, if we have a problem right off the bat.”

He was referring to a newly finalized set of regulations for the fishery that took effect Sunday, laying out protocols for monitoring and managing the risk of run-ins between crabbing gear and protected whale species. Once entangled in fishing lines weighted with heavy traps, the marine mammals can become injured, cut or drowned.

The regulations require the state Fish and Wildlife director to make monthly risk assessments, considering risk factors related to the fishery for protected whales between November and June. It also establishes a point system that requires management of the fishery when entanglements or close calls occur, including closing areas of the fishery or shutting the season down.

The new framework arose from an alarming spike in whale entanglements off the western United States that peaked in 2016 during a marine heat wave, which disrupted normal sea life distribution at the same time that a harmful algae bloom delayed the commercial crab season by four months.

The Center for Biological Diversity sued the state on the grounds it had failed to protect endangered blue and humpback whales, as well as Pacific leatherback sea turtles, through inadequate management of the crab fishery.

The lawsuit was settled early last year under an agreement that put in place similar provisions to the new regulations. Last fall, the season start was delayed accordingly by a week, and further delayed after the fleet decided not to fish due to continued concerns about snagging whales if they did.

Fish and Wildlife personnel and Bonham conferred more closely with fishing representatives this year to avoid the kinds of tensions that came as a result last year.

“Here’s the bottom line,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg and chairman of the state Legislature’s Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture. “This year was going to be the first year since 2015 where the fleet was in the all-clear from domoic acid. Spirits were high, and we were finally able to catch a break; that said, the fleet has been unified in hitting the pause button through December 1st.”

Platt and his group still argue the new rules are overly burdensome, particularly given a new study indicating the humpback whale population has been growing steadily.

Bartling, the state environmental scientist, also pointed to continued efforts by both Fish and Wildlife and the crabbing fleet to reduce entanglements through improved management, gear retrieval programs and other protocols.

He noted that so far in 2020, one entanglement had been confirmed off the California coast, involving a humpback found ensnared in commercial gear last May in Monterey Bay. It was later freed.

“The fleet has gone to great lengths to be more nimble in order to protect whales and turtles,” Bonham said in his announcement Wednesday, “and the results are promising.”

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

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