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Northern California crab season delayed again

Commercial crab fishing is becoming a turkey of a profession this year, as the season in the zone stretching from Gualala Point south to the Mexico border is delayed again to Dec. 16.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife decided Tuesday to put a hold on the season because the whales have failed to migrate south to their nesting grounds in sufficient numbers. The mammals, which wildlife officials contend risk entanglement with the crab fishing gear, have hung out along the California coast longer than usual.

This is the second time the season has been delayed. It was supposed to start Nov. 15, but those plans were squashed about three weeks ago when the launch moved to Dec. 1.

But the state agency conducted a survey on Nov. 21 and found many whales off shore in the zone from Point Arena south through the San Francisco Bay Area.

“The whales haven’t left the vicinity. If this extends, there’s going to be serious financial consequences to the fleet — and this is on the heels of COVID,” Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations Executive Director Mike Conroy told the Business Journal. He predicted many crab fishermen, who take part in an industry valued at $51 million in California in 2019, would lose their boats and homes.

“I think folks understood the first delay, thinking: ‘Have your Thanksgiving turkey now, but leave your holiday tables for crab,’” he said, adding there’s “less acceptance and more frustration” this time. “The fishermen think they could co-exist with the whales.”

The whales swim farther off shore than where the boats often go, he contends.

But the state agency director insists the chance of interaction is too great.

“Available data indicates the whales still remain in the fishing grounds,” CDFW Director Charlton Bonham said.

The zone north from Mendocino County up the Pacific coastline to the Oregon border was already delayed because of a tri-state agreement California has with Oregon and Washington that tests the available crab in the far north.

But the southern zone that wildlife regulators monitor because of a series of new rules is kept on a tight leash. The actions were spawned by a settled lawsuit against the state by the Center for Biological Diversity. The Risk Assessment Mitigation Program — referred to as RAMP — dictates new rules this year such as a boat’s distance from humpback and blue whales.

“They’ll be out of here eventually,” said Ryan Bartling, a Fish and Wildlife senior environmental scientist with the state’s marine division.

What’s keeping them here?

Most theories point to the explosive anchovy population that has kept the whales munching well into the winter, delaying their traditional, long Pacific Coast journey to Baja shores and Magdalena Bay, fishing and wildlife officials indicate. In most years, the anchovies are scattered when the winter storms churn up the water.

But the Pacific Coast is experiencing the early formation of a building La Nina, a tropical weather phenomenon that originates off the shores of South America that is expected to bring a dry, warm winter this year, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center reported on Oct. 15.

Regardless, these are tough times for resilient fishermen.

“Since mid-November, fishermen have had to sit idle at the dock and accept delays in the opening of their crab season due to the new, highly restrictive and unfair RAMP rules. “And now the season is being postponed for a full month,” said California Coast Crab Association President Ben Platt, who awaits the chance to launch his new boat from his Crescent City home.

The number of humpback whales is rising, with 15 confirmed entanglements along the California coast in the 2015-16 season, NOAA reported. Seven were recorded two years later. Last year, there were only three.

To some degree, Platt is challenging the state’s logic.

“The California Dungeness crab fishery had only one confirmed interaction with a whale last crab season, and that whale was released unharmed,” he said. “We have basically been forced to accept these delays, because according to the new rules, we risk losing the entire season if even one or two whales interact with crab lines. Meanwhile, Californians are being denied access to fresh, delicious holiday crab.”

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