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Dungeness crab season in Bay Area, Central Coast will come to an early end

By Linda Zavoral, The Mercury News
Published: March 30, 2024, 5:40am

The already-shortened 2023-2024 Dungeness crab season in the Bay Area and central California will come to an end early, in just over a week.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife officials on Thursday ordered an April 8 close to the commercial season to minimize the risk of humpback whales becoming entangled in fishing gear as they return to forage off the California coast.

The decision was made after consultation with representatives of the fishing industry, environmental organizations and scientists. Fishing fleet members had sought additional time for the removal of fishing gear.

The order applies to what the state calls Zones 3, 4 and 5, from the Sonoma/Mendocino county border south to Point Conception in Santa Barbara County.

In Zones 1 and 2 (Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte counties), crabbing may continue, though officials are limiting fishermen to a depth restriction of 30 fathoms, about 180 feet. That change also goes into effect April 8.

The conservation nonprofit Oceana, one of the state’s advisory groups, praised the decision for Central and Southern California but expressed concern about leaving the season open in the north.

“Over the last few years, fishery managers underestimated the risk of entanglement and did not close the fishery soon enough in the spring months as whales returned,” Oceana’s Dr. Geoff Shester said in a statement. “Sadly, we often see the result of this delayed action many months later when new entanglements are observed and confirmed.”

This season, 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.

Oceana and other conservationists are encouraging the use of ropeless gear rather than conventional vertical lines.

Central California’s commercial crab season started late this year — Jan. 18, with a 50% trap reduction — after a series of delays. The traditional start is Nov. 15 and the recreational season typically begins 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.

This year, 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.

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