California delays Dungeness crab season, with next assessment coming 17 November

Dungeness crab being caught in California.

The U.S. state of California has imposed an early season closure of the Dungeness crab fishery off the central and southern coast to reduce the risk of humpback whale entanglements.

This is the fifth season in a row California’s Dungeness crab season has been delayed past its traditional 15 November opening date, owing to high numbers of humpback whales observed off the coast, according to Charlton Bonham, director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. The fall 2022 opening was delayed three times, finally opening on 31 December but with a 50 percent trap reduction through January.

The 2023 commercial fishery opening will be delayed in Fishing Zones 3, 4, 5 and 6. The deployment and use of crab traps in any recreational fishery is temporarily prohibited in Fishing Zones 3 and 4, with a recreational fleet advisory in all zones, according to a statement issued by Bonham’s office. The California DFW will reassess the risks of whale entanglements in crab gear on 17 November, with an eye toward a possible 1 December opening.

“Large aggregations of humpback whales continue to forage between Bodega Bay and Monterey and allowing the use of crab traps would increase the risk of an entanglement in those fishing zones,” Bonham said. “We will continue to work with both the recreational and commercial Dungeness crab fisheries to protect whales while working to maximize fishing opportunities. We appreciate the ongoing commitment by both the recreational and commercial fleets and the California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group to manage entanglement risk in this iconic fishery.”

The decision was expected following the state’s most recent consultations with the working group, and based in part on NOAA observer reports from aerial surveys from 4 to 6 October, according to the California DFW.

On those days, NOAA aerial observation crews “observed 73 humpback whales in Fishing Zone 3 and 30 humpback whales in Fishing Zone 4,” according to Bonham, while Cascadia Research surveyors observed a minimum of 35 and a maximum of 89 humpback whales in Fishing Zone 3 during vessel surveys conducted on 5, 10, 13, 14, and 16 October.

“[Under California law], I must implement a Fishing Zone delay or other protective management action in the commercial Dungeness crab fishery,” Bonham said.

Data from commercial whale watching trips in Fishing Zone 4 through the summer and fall also showed a continued presence of humpback whales, with the most recent weekly running average of 16.2 humpback whales in Monterey Bay, according to Bonham.

The historic November opening is a big day for crabbers and California culinary tradition that calls for Dungeness on the table at Thanksgiving. The closures have caused pain for fishermen, who also dealt with an early closure of the previous year's fishery.

“There are people in a world of hurt and who are trying to make it work, and it’s not easy for them,” fisherman Dick Ogg, president of the Bodega Bay Fisherman’s Marketing Association, told the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. “It’s just a tough time. We’re all really struggling.”

Crab fishermen have been working on trial testing of on-demand, or so-called pop-up gear that keeps buoys and vertical lines on the bottom until recalled by fishermen for retrieval. The environmental group Oceana made a renewed pitch for the gear following the delay of the opener.

“The recent whale entanglement numbers have exceeded triggers for management actions and will make it difficult for the state to acquire authorizations under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. For this reason, stricter protections to prevent entanglements are needed as California updates its regulations next year,” Oceana California Campaign Director and Senior Scientist Geoff Shester said. Shester is a member of the state’s Dungeness working group.

Fishermen tested Sub Sea Sonics pop-up systems in hundreds of trials during spring 2023 under experimental fishing permits, according to Oceana, and “a larger, commercial scale testing is planned for spring 2024 to enable authorization of the gear as alternative gear by 2025.”

Reporting by Kirk Moore

Photo courtesy of Photo_Time/Shutterstock


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