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Traditions revived in Bodega Bay as Dungeness crab season set to open

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What you need to know

Sport fishing regulations

In addition to the usual catch and size limits (10 per day and at least 5 ¾ inches across), new rules are in effect for sport crabbers this season requiring all buoys to bear the owners GO identification number and all traps to have a destruct device so crabs in abandoned pots can go free. For details see: wildlife.ca.gov/Fishing/Ocean/Regulations/Sport-Fishing

Bodega Bay boat launches

The Westside Regional Park boat launch will open Friday through Sunday but closed weekly for renovation work Monday through Thursday. Information on county boat launches for crab vessels can be found at parks.sonomacounty.ca.gov.

Campers drawn to Doran Beach Regional Park by the promise of freshly caught Dungeness crab and renewing long-held traditions formed a lengthy queue of RVs and boats by midday Thursday.

A year ago, many of the same crowd were taking in bad news: the postponement of California’s crab season because of a toxic algae bloom that put the fishery off limits to all crabbers, recreational and commercial, until March.

Now, with the disappointment of last season still a painful memory, the sport season is back on amid expectations that fewer crab caught last year means many big ones wait offshore.

“We’re good to go,” Sacramento resident Tim Donaldson said with a grin.

He and his wife and several dozen friends this weekend were set to reconvene a crab feast they’ve shared for 14 years. Many of those who plan ahead for this occasion staked their claim to Bodega Bay campsites a year ago, Sonoma County parks personnel said. Under state law, they will be allowed to begin soaking their crab pots beginning at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, though the majority typically wait for daylight to head out.

There is a caveat to the highly anticipated season opener: Isolated samples of crab with slightly elevated levels of toxin in their organs have been caught off the Sonoma Coast as recently as eight days ago.

State health officials have issued an advisory urging consumers to remove the body cavity — including the guts, or viscera — from crabs caught north of Point Reyes before cooking, as that is where toxins in a crab would be concentrated.

It takes a little longer than just plopping whole crabs in a steamer or boiling water, “but we know we’ll be safe,” Sebastopol resident Bonnie Lowe said while relaxing with friends at Doran Beach.

Lowe and her husband, Fritz, are among a crew of former high school classmates who’ve gathered each year for more than 20 years at Gull Campground for the crab season opener. Last year, they were unpacked and settling in when high levels of a naturally occurring neurotoxin called domoic acid detected in Dungeness crab prompted state health and wildlife officials to suspend the opening of sport crab season just two days before it was set to start. At the time, most people assumed the season was merely being delayed a week or two, not the four-plus-months that ultimately ensued.

Environmental scientists believe above-normal ocean temperatures last year contributed to the unusually large and persistent algae bloom off the coast. This year, the state Department of Public Health started testing earlier and watched as domoic acid levels peaked in September and began to decline.

Crab from Central Coast ports have tested clean, but some of those caught out of Bodega Bay and off the Russian River mouth have exceeded the federal action threshold for domoic acid.

That threshold is 30 parts per million. Local samples showed one of six crabs in each collection tested at 51 ppm in the viscera, often called crab butter.

The meat of the crabs is usually tainted only when the viscera levels are “substantially higher than the action level,” a public health spokesman said, so the meat should be safe.

What you need to know

Sport fishing regulations

In addition to the usual catch and size limits (10 per day and at least 5 ¾ inches across), new rules are in effect for sport crabbers this season requiring all buoys to bear the owners GO identification number and all traps to have a destruct device so crabs in abandoned pots can go free. For details see: wildlife.ca.gov/Fishing/Ocean/Regulations/Sport-Fishing

Bodega Bay boat launches

The Westside Regional Park boat launch will open Friday through Sunday but closed weekly for renovation work Monday through Thursday. Information on county boat launches for crab vessels can be found at parks.sonomacounty.ca.gov.

It was not yet clear Thursday how state officials would handle the commercial Dungeness crab season, which normally opens Nov. 15 south of the Mendocino County line, and Dec. 1 to the north.

State wildlife personnel and North Coast Sen. Mike McGuire, chairman of the Joint Legislative Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture, said there was a strong possibility the commercial season would be delayed for a short time north of Point Reyes.

The uncertainty is a worry for the commercial fleet, which also has endured disappointing back-to-back salmon harvests.

“We’re bummed out,” said Tony Anello, a veteran crabber. “We’re really concerned about what’s going down, you know? That’s all I can tell you.”

Recreational crabbers, meanwhile, have been excited and gearing up for the season, providing a welcome lift for vendors who felt the pain of last year’s delay, said Tim Elie, vice president of the Outdoor Pro Shop in Cotati.

“We’ve been fairly busy over the last two weekends (with) people finally getting ready, realizing that the season is upon us this weekend,” he said.

Veterans of this weekend in Bodega Bay know to expect something akin to a scrum as they compete for an opportunity to get their boats in the water, vying for position at two ramps facing each other across the harbor.

Donaldson described the scene as “a comedy of errors,” as crabbers in everything from kayaks to 25-foot boats wait to launch.

Fritz Lowe said he berthed his 25-foot boat at nearby Spud Point Marina this year “just so we don’t have to fight the crowds.”

Work has been under way for several weeks at Westside Regional Park, where the county is widening the ramp so that three boats can be launched at once, rather than two. Recent rains delayed that work, which won’t be finished in time to help this weekend.

Groups assembling for their annual crab feasts at Doran Beach said they were content enough to fish for rockfish or just hang out with friends last year when crab was off-limits.

But with Dungeness back, they were clearly eager to drop their pots.

“You gotta have crab,” said Windsor resident Chris Young. “It’s Sonoma County.”

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

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