Crab opener delayed again while humpbacks linger in Bay Area waters

12/02/2020

Marin commercial crabbers are eyeing significant financial losses, after another delay in the season opener announced by Fish and Wildlife. The original start date of Nov. 15, pushed to Dec. 1, has been moved back Dec. 16 to preempt conflicts with migrating whales. A working group of Fish and Wildlife staff, environmentalists and industry representatives said further delays could spell disaster for the industry. “Given the delays and closures during the prior two fishing seasons, a delay beyond December 15 would create a fishery disaster, and vessels would again be unable to recoup their losses during the remainder of the season,” a report states. Humpback whale populations have yet to entirely vacate Bay Area waters, according to aerial and boat surveys. The delays reflect new rules stemming from a settlement with the Center for Biological Diversity over entanglements in crab gear, which spiked from 2014 to 2016. Point Blue Conservation Science provided some of the regional data on whale populations. Dr. Jaime Jahncke, a Point Blue scientist and a member of the working group, said data indicates that most humpbacks—a focus of the settlement, alongside endangered blue whales and Pacific leatherback turtles—moved south of Marin by early December. “We are all on common ground,” he said of the working group. “The fishermen talk about seeing whales around and they don’t want a whale to die or their gear to be harmed. We all want whale populations to recover and to be healthy.” Prior to Dec. 16, the working group will consider another round of surveys to determine whether whales are still in the area. The group estimates the one-month delay has cost the industry at least $40 million. Last year, the season was delayed a month to prevent entanglements, though new rules had not been finalized. Ben Platt, president of the California Coast Crab Association, said that the crab fishery, a bread-and-butter industry for California fishermen, was in jeopardy. By proxy, the whole West Coast commercial fishing industry was under threat of collapse, he said. Under the new rules, should three humpback whales become entangled and injured in Dungeness crab fishing gear, Fish and Wildlife would close the commercial fishing season statewide. There are additional thresholds for harm caused to blue whales and sea turtles, though neither turned up in the recent surveys in Marin waters. A separately managed zone within the fishery to the north of the Bay Area was delayed this year not due to the presence of whales but because crabs failed a meat quality test. The test, which measures crab body weight, is not conducted in Marin. “Our hope is both quality testing and additional marine life survey data will support a unified statewide opener on Dec. 16, just in time to have crab for the holidays and New Year,” state Fish and Wildlife director Charlton Bonham said in a statement last week. Meanwhile, recreational crabbers, whose regulations may also soon tighten, have been on the water since the start of November.