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Dungeness commercial crab season likely to be delayed over risks to whales

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California’s state fish and wildlife chief is poised to delay this fall’s commercial Dungeness crab season for eight days under a legal settlement requiring him to exercise greater control over deployment of commercial crab gear in an effort to mitigate the risk of whale entanglements.

Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham could still change his mind, in theory. He’s accepting comment on the proposal through Monday.

But in his first act under a new risk assessment protocol required in the settlement with a conservation group called the Center for Biological Diversity, Bonham announced late Friday that he was inclined to postpone the Nov. 15 season start in areas south of the Mendocino County line to give migrating whales extra time to swim south — away from water that will be filled with thousands of crab pots, buoys and vertical lines once the legal crab pot soak period begins.

At the same time, the proposed Nov. 23 start would preserve the ability of the commercial fleet to provide crab for Thanksgiving tables, “an important cultural and economic opportunity for the state of California,” Bonham said.

Kristen Monsell, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said she’s still apprehensive about the status of the whales and whether they will be clear of commercial crabbing grounds once Nov. 23 arrives.

But she declared Bonham’s decision overall satisfying, saying, “This is good. It’s an example of the process working how it’s supposed to, in that it is a management measure driven by science.”

The announcement predictably drew criticism from some in the fishing industry, which for many is a hardscrabble life even without unexpected interruptions. But in the case of commercial crabbers, the entanglement settlement reached last spring already required them to pull their gear from the ocean 2½  months early last season to avoid interfering with the beginning of the spring whale migration. Related losses were significant in some cases, so even a minimal delay in restarting this fall has taken on an extra dimension.

What’s worse: The recreational Dungeness crab season started Saturday, drawing thousands of people to the coast to celebrate an annual rite of feasting on sweet, succulent crustaceans, many of them caught in the very harbors where commercial fishermen were processing news of their own delay.

“This is crap,” said one of them, veteran Bodega Bay crabber and Spud Point Crab Co. co-owner Tony Anello. “It’s crap. How come the recreational fishery is exempt? They have buoys. They have lines from top to the bottom, with buoys.

“We see all these guys out here, tied up here. They’re all happy and joyful, thinking they’ve got the whole ocean to themselves until the 23rd,” Anello said.

The notice also underscores the waning predictability of seasonal traditions and rising complexity of legal and regulatory intervention governing when, where and how ocean harvests can be conducted. Commercial crabbers have for months expressed rising apprehension about how the coming season and all future years would look, given the recent settlement and new mechanisms for stops and starts based on the presence of whales and potential entanglements.

Bonham said his decision was based in part on federal aerial surveys conducted between Oct. 22 and 25 in which endangered humpback and blue whales, as well as Leatherback sea turtles, were observed off the California coast. The surveyor from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration specifically cited high concentrations of humpbacks in waters between Bodega Head and the south edge of Monterey Bay, Bonham said in a preliminary determination made public Friday night.

Combining those findings with other factors, including an entangled humpback whale that beached Oct. 23 near Eureka, led him to conclude that the traditional Nov. 15 start would put marine animals at “significant risk” of entanglement, Bonham said.

Bodega Bay fisherman Dick Ogg said he appreciated the unenviable spot Bonham is in and the pressure he is under to avoid taking chances with an endangered species while positioned directly in the lens of a microscope.

“You know, he tried to make the best possible decision he could make and still give the fishermen the opportunity to take advantage of the Thanksgiving market,” Ogg said. “It was tough.”

The Nov. 1 assessment is one of 12 required according to a set schedule agreed to in the settlement to be made by Bonham in consultation with the California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group established in 2015 to address what was then a rising incidence of whale entanglements off the West Coast during a period of anomalous warm ocean temperatures that redistributed whale forage and drew the mammoth beasts closer to shore than usual, causing record numbers to become ensnared in fishing gear.

The group includes commercial and recreational fishermen, environmental stakeholders, marine mammal disentanglement experts, state and federal personnel and others who have worked on developing best practices, testing new technologies and creating new regulatory frameworks to align with the settlement conditions, among other tasks.

From a peak of 71 entanglements off the West Coast in 2016, so far this year there have been 18  confirmed cases and one unconfirmed offshore of California, Oregon and Washington — evidence the group is having an impact, some say.

Ogg and Noah Oppenheim, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, are both members of the working group. Ogg even went up for the aerial survey twice.

Both said that after substantial debate, a 14- member majority of the group evaluated the risk of entanglement as moderate trending toward low, based on the return of normal, chilly autumn ocean temperatures, dispersed whale distributions and normal seasonal migration patterns.

But seven others gave Bonham a minority opinion putting the risk at a higher level, and Bonham, they said, appears to have “split the difference.”

“This was kind of a happy medium,” said Ogg. “Do I like it? I’d rather be fishing longer. I’d rather have the opportunity to go. But is it a workable situation? Yeah, it’s workable. We gotta make it work. We’re going to keep finding ways to reduce our interaction, but right now, we’ve got to go fishing.”

Before making a final decision, Bonham will consider any new information or recommendations submitted by 5 p.m. Monday to whalesafefisheries@wildlife.ca.gov.

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

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