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Bodega Bay crab fleet to sit out Dungeness opener to avoid whales, urging other ports to do same

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Bodega Bay’s commercial crabbing fleet has agreed to voluntarily forgo Friday’s scheduled Dungeness crab season opener, an extraordinary step aimed to avoid potentially harmful encounters with endangered humpback whales that have yet to leave the area their winter home off the coast of Mexico.

The Bodega Bay fleet, which was unanimous in its decision Tuesday, is hoping to persuade nearby ports to follow suit, resisting the urge to get out on the water for the time being, given aerial surveys Monday that documented up to 86 humpback whales gathered off Point Reyes, as well as in the Gulf of the Farallones and Half Moon Bay.

Under California’s newly bolstered regulations to safeguard whales and other marine mammals, even a single case of entanglement in fishing gear could prompt restrictions on the Dungeness crab harvest, including shutdown of the season altogether, imperiling one of the state’s most lucrative fisheries.

“My guys depend on that all winter,” said Lorne Edwards, president of the Bodega Bay Fishermen’s Association, which approved the voluntary delay. “It’s not a gamble that we’re willing to take.”

‘Doing the right thing’

Edwards and other local fishermen said crabbers in San Francisco and Half Moon Bay have expressed concerns about the risk of entanglement but could still choose to go fishing anyway when they meet in their respective ports Wednesday. Their decisions could test Bodega Bay’s resolve. Even California Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham opted not to take action this week.

Yet local fishermen noted that taking charge of the situation serves their common interests.

“There’s a problem. There’s an issue. And we as fishermen want to be the ones driving the bus,” said Bodega Bay fisherman Dick Ogg, who was on the whale survey flight Monday and serves on a group representing crabbers on entanglement issues. “We want to protect these animals. We are interested in doing the right thing, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

The discussion comes amid preseason uncertainty that rivals any in recent history, with multiple challenges to a successful season launch still unresolved — and with Thanksgiving, high season for fresh, succulent crab, just over a week away.

The traditional Dungeness crab opener along the coast from Sonoma County to southern San Mateo County has already been postponed a week, to Nov. 22, because of concerns about the risk to protected whale species in the region.

The delay was imposed under the terms of a legal settlement reached last spring in a lawsuit filed against Bonham and his agency by the Center for Biological Diversity. The group said state wildlife officials had imperiled endangered blue and humpback whales, as well as sea turtles, by failing to exercise sufficient control over the crab fishery.

The settlement brought a premature end to the last crab season and is likely to curtail seasons going forward. It provided for in-season check-ins and management decisions that further heighten uncertainty for crabbers.

Even before the lingering humpback concentrations were documented Monday, the commercial fleet was on pins and needles, awaiting a last-minute green light from state health officials.

The wait comes after routine, pre-season testing for a dangerous neurotoxin called domoic acid turned up slightly elevated levels among two Dungeness crabs collected near Bolinas over the past month. A six-sample collection tested clean last week, but the results from the most recent test won’t be available until some time before 6 p.m. Wednesday — about the time many commercial captains would have been heading toward their preferred fishing grounds to be ready to begin dropping gear at 6 a.m. Thursday for the Friday opener.

The all-clear for domoic acid requires two consecutive clean tests, seven days apart, from any collection site where elevated levels are detected. So even had the entanglement threat not presented itself anew, crabbers would have been waiting on word from health authorities.

A clean test would open the district spanning the Sonoma Coast to Pigeon Point in San Mateo County. Results showing elevated domoic acid levels would delay the opening of the territory between Point Reyes and Half Moon Bay and open the remainder of the district.

The latter scenario is particularly worrisome to many commercial crabbers because it would mean a heavy concentration of gear in a limited space, forcing any whales passing through to run a gauntlet of vertical lines. Making matters worse, the whales feeding on anchovies at Point Reyes are in an area known for good crabbing. Anyone hunting crab there would likely have their gear right up against the closure boundary.

In the zone that runs from Mendocino County north, routine testing found sampled crab failed to yield sufficient meat to open the season Dec. 1. It now won’t begin until at least Dec. 16, likely driving some of the fishing vessels out of Fort Bragg and points north to fishing grounds in the south, further crowding any open areas with gear.

Oregon has delayed its Dungeness season for the same reason: crabs haven’t bulked up enough for harvest.

“It’s a pickle, because we have an unusual combination of factors here — the quality delay in the north, the domoic donut hole in the middle of District 10, and then this whale thing,” said Sonke Mastrup, environmental program manager for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. “It’s pretty complicated.”

Even so, many of Bodega Bay’s commercial vessels were loaded Tuesday with bait and groceries when the fishermen’s association gathered at noon to discuss the entanglement issue.

Hearing at Capitol

Meanwhile, 90 miles away in the state Capitol, at a three-hour hearing on crab and fishery issues, legislators and regulators were addressing the litany of challenges facing the state’s commercial fleet.

Bonham, the Fish and Wildlife director, highlighted in his testimony Monday’s aerial survey as part of his agency’s commitment to real-time monitoring of marine mammals. But no historic data was available to determine whether the large number of humpbacks still in the area is unusual, he said.

He said he felt a delay in the season was unwarranted because of commercial crabbers’ commitment to fishing responsibly and their awareness of the consequences if they don’t.

“They know if we have an entanglement, I have a series of additional risk assessments coming up, and I may conclude the right thing to do is to close the fishery permanently for this season,” Bonham testified.

Later in the day, Jordan Traverso, a Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman, said the state would not stand in the way of a voluntary delay coordinated by fishermen.

“If the Bodega Bay crab fleet decides that they want to voluntarily stay docked in order to prevent entanglement, and they intend to reach out to other ports to do the same, we think that’s very responsible,” Traverso said.

Edwards and others said Bonham should simply have delayed the season, given the concentration of whales seen in the flyover.

“I’m happy to hear Bodega Bay crabbers recognize the whale entanglement risk and are holding off on dropping their traps,” said Kristen Monsell, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “State officials should follow their example rather than ignoring the presence of endangered humpback whales.”

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

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