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California agrees with crabbers to postpone Dungeness season in bid to safeguard whales and fishing fleet

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More info on Dungeness crab commercial season

State tests of sample crab in the district that includes the Sonoma Coast came back clean Wednesday for domoic acid, meaning a green light from public health officials once crabbers do get final word on the season opener from wildlife authorities.

Dec. 15 is now the tentative commercial Dungeness opener for the coast extending from Sonoma County to Pigeon Point in San Mateo County. The opener for Mendocino County and points north, where fishing was delayed to allow crabs to bulk up before harvest, is set to begin Dec. 16, pending test results.

A bid led by Bodega Bay’s commercial fishing fleet succeeded Wednesday in persuading state wildlife officials to postpone the opening of Dungeness crab season to safeguard protected whales species still lingering in the fishing grounds.

In a move at the behest of the crab industry, Chuck Bonham, the state fish and wildlife director, agreed to push back the season opener to Dec. 15. Crab fishing was slated to open Friday along the coast from Sonoma to San Mateo counties.

The decision is subject to two days of public comment ending Friday afternoon.

It’s the second delay in the season because of the heavy presence of threatened and endangered whales in coastal waters off the greater Bay Area, where the commercial Dungeness crab season traditionally opens Nov. 15.

Fresh crab from Washington state should be available at local markets for Thanksgiving, local fishermen said.

Bonham’s move came after commercial crabbers in San Francisco and Half Moon Bay voted to join those in Bodega Bay, who had resolved a day earlier to stand down from the Friday opener to avoid entangling whales. Up to 86  humpbacks were observed in the region during an aerial survey Monday.

The state’s move ensures that fishing boats from out of the area don’t have the fishing grounds to themselves come Friday and risk curtailing the season in any encounter with a whale.

Under the terms of a legal settlement reached in March between the state and an environmental group, even a single marine mammal entanglement could prompt restrictions in the commercial crab fishery, including closure.

“I think all of the guys are on the same page,” Bodega Bay Fishermens’ Association President Lorne Edwards said Wednesday after the other two ports decided to stand with Bodega Bay and forgo the opener. “We don’t want to lose the season.”

Crescent City fisherman Tom Wright, one of about a half-dozen skippers who motored south to crab because northern grounds remained closed, said another crabber who continued past Bodega Bay to San Francisco described whales so dense “it was like traveling through Sea World.”

“This is basically industry suicide if we go out and catch a whale,” Wright said.

The Center for Biological Diversity, in its 2017 lawsuit against the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, accused the agency of insufficient regulation of the commercial crabbing fleet, saying entanglement in fishing gear imperiled listed populations of humpback and blue whales, as well as sea turtles. The previous year, a record 71 entanglements were reported off the west coast of North America — 48 of them confirmed and 22 tied to California’s commercial crab fishery.

The settlement reached this year with the state, signed also by fishing representatives, included substantial concessions, including shortened seasons and sharp consequences in the event of an entanglement.

It also includes a slate of in-season check-ins that require Bonham to consult with a diverse working group of fishermen, scientists, regulators and environmentalists trying to limit entanglements of marine mammals.

Prior to Wednesday’s decision, Bonham’s first act under the new protocol was to delay the Nov. 15 opener to Friday, hoping to balance the continued presence of whales that eventually will migrate to wintering grounds off the coast of Mexico while allowing commercial crabbers time to land fresh crab for Thanksgiving.

Then the agency sent up a plane to take a look at the number of whales in the area, including Point Reyes, the Gulf of the Farallones and Half Moon Bay. Their findings Monday prompted alarm in the crabbing community.

Entangled whales can occassionally carry fishing gear for hundreds of miles and later die from their injuries, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Fisherman Dick Ogg, vice president of the Bodega Bay Fishermens’ Association and a member of the crab gear working group, was on the flyover. He said he immediately saw potential for another spike in harmful encounters with whales.

“This was the potential,” Ogg said, “and, had we not gone to (the Department of Fish and Wildlife), it’s very likely we would have ended up in a similar situation.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify whale entanglement records from 2016, previously attributed incorrectly to 2017, and credits the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for information about prolonged crab gear entanglement.

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

More info on Dungeness crab commercial season

State tests of sample crab in the district that includes the Sonoma Coast came back clean Wednesday for domoic acid, meaning a green light from public health officials once crabbers do get final word on the season opener from wildlife authorities.

Dec. 15 is now the tentative commercial Dungeness opener for the coast extending from Sonoma County to Pigeon Point in San Mateo County. The opener for Mendocino County and points north, where fishing was delayed to allow crabs to bulk up before harvest, is set to begin Dec. 16, pending test results.

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