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Commercial Dungeness crab season along the Sonoma and Central Coast delayed one week

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The commercial harvest of Dungeness crab will be delayed until Nov. 22 in waters off the Sonoma and Central coasts, forcing commercial fishermen and women to wait an extra week for their next payday but allowing them to start landing tasty crustaceans in time for Thanksgiving.

California Fish and Wildlife Director Charles “Chuck” Bonham announced late Tuesday that he would start the season seven days late, a day earlier than initially proposed in a preliminary notice issued late last week.

The season has traditionally started Nov. 15 south of the Mendocino County line, launching a frenzied harvest that accounts for a significant part of many fishermen and women’s annual income, as they fulfill demand for the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year markets. The season north of the county line typically starts Dec. 1.

California fishermen caught 18.8 million pounds of Dungeness crab worth $63.5 million at the dock last year, according to state Fish and Wildlife data. More than $5.5 million was landed in Bodega Bay and $5.2 million in Fort Bragg.

The delayed season start is intended to give endangered humpback and blue whales additional time to leave coastal fishing grounds before the crabbing fleet deploys tens of thousands of crab pots, potentially putting them at risk of entanglement.

A federal survey found them still to be in high concentrations in the Central Coast area, though they are due to head south, Bonham said.

It is the Fish and Wildlife chief’s first management decision under a settlement agreement reached last spring in a lawsuit filed by the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, which sued the state wildlife agency for failing to exercise sufficient control of the fishery, thus allowing marine animals listed under the Endangered Species Act to be killed.

The lawsuit came in response to a sudden spike in entanglement cases in 2015 and ’16, during a period of unusually warm ocean conditions that Bonham argued brought forage fish and, thus, predators like whales closer to shore than usual, exposing them to vertical crabbing lines at far greater density than they normally would be.

But even with normal conditions, the risk of entanglement is present “as long as there’s thousands and thousands of lines in the water,” said Kristen Monsell, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “But particularly at the beginning of the season, when it’s just a free-for-all and the crabbers drop just thousands and thousands of traps in the water, and also in the spring when the whales start coming back.”

Under the legal settlement, Bonham must assess the risk to whales according to set dates in consultation with the 4-year-old California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group to determine if adjustments need to be made to the seasonal schedule or other fishery regulations to safeguard endangered species from entanglement, up to and including closure of the season.

The settlement, which required early closure of the season last spring, also sets April 1 as the default end of the season each year, absent scientific evidence that it can proceed without harm to the whales. The season has generally ended June 30 south of the Mendocino County line and run until July 15 north of it.

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