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Commercial crab season delayed again, set to start Dec. 1 north of Sonoma County

An abundance of endangered whales still feeding off the California Coast has forced the continued delay of commercial crabbing off the shore of Monterey, San Francisco and Bodega bays, at least until Dec. 15.

The delay will help ensure marine animals don’t become entangled, according to state Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham.

The season will open Dec. 1 north of Sonoma County, allowing the harvest of North Coast Dungeness crab there to proceed on time, furnishing fresh crab for winter holiday feasts and an opportunity for some commercial crabbers to get some action even if they usually fish in areas that remain closed.

It’s a bitter pill for those who own smaller fishing boats and those for whom the trek north would not pay off, however. They’ve already missed the lucrative Thanksgiving market due to the initial delay of the Central Coast’s usual Nov. 15 commercial start.

“The little guys are suffering big time,” said veteran Bodega Bay fishermen Tony Anello, who said he knows three young, newer additions to the fleet who “have no way of making it right now.”

Anello said his son, who owns a large vessel, plans to head north at the appropriate time, where, under state rules, the season never opens until at least Dec. 1, or until quality tests show the crustaceans have matured enough to bear enough meat.

Tony Anello’s own boat is too small to go, though he has a successful family restaurant in Bodega Bay and a modest fireman’s pension to rely on, though he conceded, “The small boats are going under, and it’s making my boat worthless.”

The habitual rhythms of California’s iconic crab fishery, valued as for its high profits and cultural traditions, have been askew for several years, hindered by toxic algae blooms and spikes in whale entanglements off the entire West Coast.

The number of entanglements peaked in 2016, when 22 occurred involving commercial fishing gear, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service.

That year, high levels of Domoic acid in the crab during a marine heat wave and blue-green algae bloom pushed the start of the season back 4½ months at the same time whales were feeding closer to shore than usual, raising the risk of interaction with dense crab gear at an unusual time.

Most of the ensnared whales were endangered humpback whales, though two were blue and one was a killer whale.

The Center for Biological Diversity subsequently sued the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for violation of the Endangered Species Act through insufficient regulation of the commercial crab fishing industry.

The resulting regulation authorizes Bonham to tailor season openings, closings and boundaries based on the presence of endangered humpback and blue whales, as well as endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtles.

It also requires movement toward ropeless gear that would eliminate the need for thick lines that run between crab traps on the ocean floor and the floating buoys on the surface that mark their location.

This is the third consecutive year in which the start of the commercial season has been delayed under the new protocols. Bonham’s order, issued late Friday, said whales had cleared the fishing zones north of Sonoma County, but remained heavily concentrated between Point Arena and Lopez Point, south of Monterey.

Restrictions on recreational crabbers will remain in effect in those areas until at least mid-December, too, meaning only hoop nets and snares are permitted — no box traps.

Kristen Monsell, ocean programs litigation director for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, praised Bonham’s move.

“This will help protect endangered whales and sea turtles from agonizing, deadly entanglements in fishing gear,” Monsell said. “It’s a crucial step, but ultimately state officials have to push harder to get the crabbing industry to adopt ropeless gear that doesn’t kill some of our most beloved and imperiled marine animals.”

Industry representatives remain troubled by the amount of research and development that still needs to be done on ropeless gear to make it a viable alternative, however.

In the meantime, ‘We’ve got to find a way for this Nov. 15 date to occur, for us to fish with these animals,” said Dick Ogg, vice president of the Bodega Bay Fishermens Marketing Association.

He said that continuing to miss the Thanksgiving market risks losing it forever.

He noted that “fair start” provisions mean anyone who goes north and deploys pots in crabbing zones north of the Sonoma County line would have to wait 30 days before they can try to catch crabs to the south, giving those who do wait an advantage among commercial crabbers once the flag drops.

But depending how long the whales stay in the area and commercial crabbing remains off-limits, they also may lose out on Christmas and New Year’s markets, when cracked crab and other Dungeness crab treats traditionally have an important place on the menu.

Meanwhile, deckhands don’t know when they will work or get paid.

“It’s just hard for everyone,” Ogg said. “There’s no question at all that this is unsustainable, and it’s not just the fishermen. The department, the fishermen, the processors. Everybody is on edge. Nobody knows, and it’s scary to think about what the potential ramifications are.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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