Sonoma Coast excluded from commercial crab season open

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The Sonoma Coast will be excluded from the start of the commercial Dungeness crab season when it opens off the Bay Area and Central Coast next week, spelling yet more hardship and frustration for a North Coast fleet still smarting from last season’s 4 ½-month delay.

State officials announced Tuesday they would open the coastline south of Point Reyes to commercial crabbing but keep off-limits a 60-mile stretch of Marin and Sonoma Coastline because of isolated cases of sample crabs showing elevated levels of a naturally occurring toxin.

The situation is a painful echo of a year ago, when a large, persistent bloom of a harmful algae species closed both the sport and commercial crab fisheries along the California coast. It finally abated in late March.

Domoic acid has been detected in sample crabs later this autumn than usual this year, but it was in significantly lower concentrations than a year ago. Samples taken off Bodega Head and the Russian River have proved more problematic than elsewhere.

Weekly results indicate toxin levels are declining, but state officials want two straight weeks of clean testing before giving the go-ahead to commercial crab fishing off the Sonoma Coast.

Commercial crabbing south of Point Reyes will kick off Nov. 15 when the regular season starts.

That’s traditionally opening day for the commercial crab fishery for Sonoma County and all ocean waters south of the Mendocino County line. The fishery north of Sonoma County typically opens Dec. 1.

News of the delay was not entirely unanticipated: state officials opened the recreational crab season on Saturday with a warning to sport crabbers that they take cleaning and cooking precautions to avoid ingesting the crab guts, or viscera, where toxins would be concentrated.

At the time, officials predicted a different approach for commercial crabbers, whose procurement and sale of the sought-after crustaceans is regulated differently.

“It’s all over again, deja vu,” said veteran fisherman Chris Lawson, former president of the Fishermen’s Marketing Association of Bodega Bay. “We were just hoping they (the sample crabs) would come back clean.”

Sample crabs collected last Thursday off the Sonoma Coast showed only one in 12 had domoic acid levels above the accepted level of 30 parts per million in the organs. The outlier was only 65 ppm and was the only one of six crabs from the Russian River area to test above the threshold. Six samples taken from the Bodega Bay area showed non‑detectable levels.

Health officials say the meat is assumed safe in crab with anything less than 80 or 90 ppm in the viscera.

“We’re all pretty frustrated at this point,” Lawson said. “We got a short crab season last year, not much salmon, and now we’re faced with this.”

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