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No Christmas crab: California’s commercial Dungeness season delayed again

By Linda Zavoral, The Mercury News
Published: December 11, 2023, 10:18am

California Dungeness crab is off the Christmas menu. And probably the New Year’s one also.

California Fish and Wildlife officials have again delayed the start of the state’s commercial Dungeness crab fishing season.

The risk of whales becoming tangled in crab fishing gear remains high for most of the coastal waters from the Mendocino County line south to the Mexican border, director Charlton H. Bonham announced Thursday night. In addition, the state reported a recent confirmed entanglement of a leatherback sea turtle in commercial Dungeness crab fishing gear lost in a previous season.

The decision was made in consultation with representatives of the fishing industry, environmental organizations and scientists.

“Delaying the opening of the coming crab season is the right thing to do protect our wildlife and the long-term viability of the fishery,” said scientist Geoff Shester, the California director for the nonprofit Oceana conservation group and a member of the advisory panel. “We commend the director’s precautionary decision.”

Six whale entanglements have been confirmed this year. The Pacific leatherback sea turtle was discovered off the Farallon Islands on Nov. 24. That species was added to the state’s endangered list in 2021.

Shester said his group, like the state, is committed to finding solutions that work for the crab-fishing industry while ensuring “safer passage for wildlife off our shores.”

Some recreational crab fishing is allowed, though crabbers may not use trap gear. According to the state order; only hoop nets and crab snares are allowed for now.

Another assessment will take place on or around Dec. 21. However, it’s unlikely that an opening date would be set in time for local residents to enjoy Dungeness from California coastal waters for any of the winter holidays. Many Bay Area restaurants, supermarkets and seafood purveyors are expected to bring in Dungeness from Oregon and Washington, where crabbing has begun.

Traditionally, California’s commercial season begins Nov. 15 and the recreational season earlier than that.

Since 2015, there have been delays in all but one commercial Dungeness season in the Bay Area. A toxin, domoic acid, that could sicken anyone who eats the tainted crab destroyed Northern California’s 2015-2016 commercial season and created delays in other years.

In 2018, the commercial season began without a hitch although recreational crabbers had to postpone their fishing.

In 2019 and 2020, the fishing line danger to whales resulted in a crabbing delay of several weeks. The 2020 crabbing season was officially set to begin Dec. 23, but price negotiations between crab fleets and seafood processors delayed the start until early January 2021.

With delays to protect whales, the truncated 2021-22 season ran from Dec. 29 to April 8, and the 2022-23 season from Dec. 31 to this past April 15.

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