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Bay Area’s commercial Dungeness crab season can start officially Jan. 18 — with caveats

By Linda Zavoral, The Mercury News
Published: January 14, 2024, 5:16am

The Bay Area’s commercial Dungeness crab season can begin Jan. 18, California officials announced Thursday, now that many of the migrating behemoths of the sea have safely made their way down the coast.

The decision comes after a series of delays since November meant to protect whales from getting tangled in fishing lines, and it comes with a key restriction: Fleets will have to operate under a 50 percent trap reduction.

“This management decision is a balanced approach that achieves two outcomes,” the California Department of Fish and Wildlife announced. “First, this trap reduction will help reduce entanglement risk for humpback whales by reducing the amount of gear and vertical lines in the water. Second, the decision gets the commercial fishery open statewide.”

For commercial crabbers, it’s a late but welcome start to a season that may end early. They will be allowed to drop crab pots on Jan. 15 but not pull them up until Jan. 18. If last season is any indication, they may get three months out of what would normally be a five-month season.

The state’s decision — made in consultation with representatives of the fishing industry, environmental organizations and scientists — opens up crabbing from the Sonoma/Mendocino county line south to the Mexican border. The commercial season started Jan. 5 for California’s far northern counties, Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte. However, pricing disagreements and poor weather conditions have stalled crabbing in those areas.

Conservation groups praised state officials for their cautionary approach to opening the season but said they remain worried about the safety of whales and turtles off the coast.

“It’s been a rough fall and winter already, with several entangled humpbacks and a leatherback sea turtle killed,” said Ben Grundy, oceans campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity. “My fingers are crossed that crab fishing doesn’t bring more humpback entanglements, but putting any fishing lines back in the water increases that risk. The state needs to do everything possible to help fishers use pop-up gear, which would avoid season-opening delays and entanglements.”

To address those issues, CDFW officials are strongly encouraging commercial crabbers to “remain vigilant for lost or abandoned gear throughout the fishing season.” State regulations allow permitted crab vessels to retrieve up to six “derelict” crab traps on each trip out. They also may report stray equipment via a CALTIP phone line.

Senior scientist Geoff Shester, Oceana’s California campaign director and a member of the state’s advisory panel, said the 50% gear reduction is likely to remain in place for the season. He, too, said pop-up gear must remain a priority.

“It’s urgent for the state to allocate funding now to get this new technology into the hands of fishers who want to test it this spring,” he said. “If the tests go well, this gear could be authorized next season.”

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.

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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, 2022, to April 15, 2023.

This season, California officials said six whale entanglements have been confirmed, and a dead Pacific leatherback sea turtle that got snarled in old gear from a previous year was discovered off the Farallon Islands on Nov. 24. That species was added to the state’s endangered list in 2021.

Since the December assessment, gear was removed from a live whale sighted off the Mexico coast, the state agency said.