State delays crab opener second time

11/26/2019

Turkey it is for the table this Thanksgiving. The opening of the commercial crab fishery in Marin was delayed for a second time last week, pushing the date to Dec. 15—more than a month past the planned start. 

Unlike past years, when delays in the opening were due to unhealthy levels of domoic acid, whales are causing the holdup this fall. An aerial reconnaissance survey conducted by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife last week showed the continued presence of humpback whales within fishing grounds; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also found at least one sea turtle foraging near the Farallones. 

“Typically by this time of year, cooler water helps move the krill further offshore, drawing the whales out further,” said Jordan Traverso, a spokeswoman for Fish and Wildlife. “Why that hasn’t happened this year could be [due to] many things: you could point to climate change, the warm water ocean blob, El Niño events. A number of scientists want to wait and see if it can be attributed to climate change, but that’s certainly what it suggests.” 

It was fishermen who requested last week’s decision to delay the commercial opening: port associations in Bodega Bay, San Francisco and Half Moon Bay took a vote and decided it was not worth the risk to whales, Ms. Traverso said. 

The fishery south of the Sonoma-Mendocino County line is now scheduled to open in mid-December; recreational crabbing has been open in the area since the start of November. 

Bolinas fisherman Josh Churchman, who has both sport and commercial crabbing licenses and who has represented fishermen on working groups convened by Fish and Wildlife, characterized the focus on whale entanglements as a paradigm shift. “This is our new world,” he said. “We used to go out and hunt whales, and now we are making sure we aren’t going to tangle one in crab [gear]. That’s a paradigm shift.” 

Data from NOAA shows that along the West Coast in 2018, crab gear—which typically consists of a pot dropped by rope to the sea floor—was responsible for 15 whale entanglements out of a total 46. 

Mr. Churchman thinks a compromise is in order; he suggested crab fishermen agree to catch 10 percent less in exchange for a five-year moratorium on changes to regulations, to allow some security. 

Regardless of when the season opens, the commercial crab fishery will likely close three months earlier than usual this spring—the result of a settlement agreement with the Center for Biological Diversity, which sued Fish and Wildlife in 2017. The settlement brought whale entanglements to the forefront of the agency’s management of the crab fishery; its primary outcome was a commitment by the agency to seek a federal permit to address protected species’ interactions with the fishery. 

Obtaining a permit and developing a conservation plan as part of that process will take years, so the settlement spells out interim protections such as regular consultation with a Dungeness-crab fishing-gear working group. 

In the meantime, Mr. Churchman said, the recreational crab fishery is “phenomenal.” Without commercial boats, he says, “the ocean bottom is covered in crabs.”