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Shortened Dungeness crab season reflects industry uncertainty

Commercial crabbers have made quick work of this year’s Dungeness crab harvest, bringing substantially fewer crustaceans ashore with each lift.

The haul has been so meager that even those who ply the waters south of Mendocino County and were unable to start harvesting until just after Christmas are ready to wrap it up.

The typical season used to extend through June, but the current one is likely to peter out within weeks or even days this year because of the low yield, especially south of Eureka, several veteran fishermen said.

The commercial fleet has been buoyed, however, by higher-than-usual opening prices for the iconic shellfish, a North Coast favorite and profitable export.

Closures and major catch restrictions in Alaskan crab fisheries, where king and snow crab stocks have plummeted, has heightened demand this winter for the Dungeness crab caught off Central and Northern California.

“The thing that’s saving us is the price,” said Dick Ogg, vice president of the Bodega Bay Fishermen’s Marketing Association.

But there is no sense of security in the North Coast crabbing fleet, and there hasn’t been for some time now.

Though still among California’s top two most valuable fisheries, the industry has been under siege in recent years.

Toxic algae during a marine heat wave delayed the start of the 2015-16 season by more than four months.

Whale feeding behavior shifted at the same time, leading to a spike in whale entanglements with crab gear, some involving endangered species. The start of the following season was delayed by toxic algae, as well.

Lawsuits by environmentalists over the harm to whales and leatherback sea turtles and additional regulations enacted by the Department of Fish and Wildlife led to fluctuations in fishing dates.

A settlement in the 2017 lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity coincided with a closure the 2018-19 crab season, 2 1/2 months early.

Variations in season starts and duration, price fluctuations and natural production cycles have contributed to what’s always been a boom-and-bust pursuit.

Annual, calendar-year harvests have ranged between $30.1 million in 2020 to $83.1 million in 2016.

Success from port to port changes each year. Sometimes the crab are more abundant in the south than north, or vice versa.

This season crab fishing opened Dec. 1 in waters north of the Sonoma Coast ― on time for the first time in seven years ― and the biggest batches of crab already have been brought in, said Crescent City crabber Ben Platt, president of the California Coast Crab Association.

South of Mendocino County, whales continued to linger pushing the normal Nov. 15 opening day back to Dec. 28.

By then, those who fish out of Bodega Bay and San Francisco had missed out on the Thanksgiving and Christmas markets, but they managed to bring in their first, largest loads in time for the New Year holiday.

Each lift since has produced diminishing returns, so it becomes harder to justify fuel, bait and crew costs, which stay the same, whatever the catch may be.

“We’re down to two or three crabs per pot,” said Bodega Bay fisherman Tony Anello, one of many getting ready to pack it in.

Many of those who will be off the water on Friday are likely to be participating in a virtual meeting on the state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s new draft Conservation Plan for Commercial Dungeness crab Fishery. It’s the latest step in a yearslong effort to complete whale-monitoring protocols to prevent marine animals from becoming ensnared in fishing lines, principally crabbing gear.

The industry already has seen substantial restrictions in recent years.

The new policies form the foundation for a draft plan, which the state intends to make part of its application for a federal Incidental Take Permit. The federal permit is required of the industry’s impact on protected humpback and blue whales, as well as leatherback sea turtles.

The plan would authorize the state Director of Fish and Wildlife to make decisions about when and where crabbers can fish based on entanglement events and preestablished trigger points.

It would also call for the closing of fishing zones if entanglements with marine animals exceed certain numbers. Those numbers would allow nine humpback whale entanglements every three years; up to one blue whale every three years and up to one leatherback sea turtle every 10 years.

The nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity also wants the industry to be required to transition to ropeless “pop-up” gear within the next five years.

In a petition filed last month, the organization requested that the National Marine Fisheries Service require all trap fisheries, like crab and lobster, be forced to abandoned fixed line gear in favor of gear that employs coiled ropes triggered by remote or time-release sensors, eliminating the need to leave gear tethered to buoys on the surface with long, thick ropes.

Most crabbers say there remain significant questions about their reliability and substantial cost.

Anello, the Bodega Bay fisherman, said he fears crabbers who harvest from the same areas will lay traps on top of one another and end up with intertwined lines that create a worse hazard for whales and other animals than currently exists.

“Ropeless gear: that’s people that don’t understand the industry,” Anello said. “It’s not going to work.”

“This is not a new idea,” said Platt, the crab association president. “These prototypes have been around for years now and they still haven't’ gotten past the prototype phase. There is no one commercial fishery in the country that has adopted pop-up gear.”

Platt said he’s also concerned about ensuring that plans properly account for robust growth in the humpback whale population and correctly attribute any entanglement issues to the property fishery.

He and Ogg pointed to widespread adoption of best practices, including shortened lines, and gear retrieval programs, as well as the state’s new framework for whale assessments and season curtailments in recent years as reasons entanglement numbers have dropped to one or two a year.

For some, that’s still too high a price to pay, however.

“Humpback entanglements are still occurring and even one every year is too many and barbarically inhumane,” said Kristen Monsell, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Especially in national marine sanctuaries that have been called the Blue Serengeti. Neither the new regulations nor the draft conservation plan will end entanglements and the pain and deaths they cause numerous animals. We need a transition to ropeless fishing gear.”

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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