SANTA CRUZ — Commercial crabbers in the Monterey Bay area and beyond will have to wait until December to set their pots — the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has delayed the opening of Dungeness crab season from Nov. 15, to Dec. 1, citing a risk of whale entanglements occurring.
Humpbacks are still actively feeding in the Monterey Bay, and north into Santa Cruz waters, according to Ryan Bartling, a senior environmental scientist for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife Marine Region. The agency has been conducting aerial and ship surveys from the Humboldt coast, to the California-Mexico border.
“There are a large number of humpback whales still foraging off our coast,” Bartling said. “If we were to allow the fishery to proceed as planned, there’s conceivably a great risk of entanglement.”
Even still, there are potentials for further delays in the season. In mid-November, the agency will reassess whale entanglement risk and evaluate if the now scheduled Dec. 1 opening date is feasible.
The recreational crabbing season opened Saturday.
Whale entanglements in the Monterey Bay Area are not a new issue. Through the fall, the Pacific Ocean is a rich feeding ground for humpback, grey and blue whales. As whales move through waters off the Central Coast, they can get caught in various types of fishing gear, including Dungeness crab gear.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has tracked a weekly average of more than 11 whales per survey, in a zone that stretches from the northern Santa Cruz coast, south to Big Sur waters.
Under new regulations that went into effect Nov.1, the agency can delay the opening of crabbing season if the average of whales sighted per week exceeds five. As part of those regulations, the agency can also make in-season changes.
Overall, whale entanglements in California have decreased in recent years. The National Marine Fisheries Service reports in 2019 there were 17 entanglements in California, and 30 in 2018. That’s compared to highs of 57 and 66 in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
Bartling thinks the overall decrease in entanglements is in part because of actions taken by the Department of Fish and Wildlife and others, to reduce the risk of whale run-ins with fishing gear.
“A season delay is more recoverable than losing the season entirely due to a high number of entanglements,” Bartling said.
Still, for a waning local commercial fishing industry, that’s already taken financial hits this year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, not being able to sell Thanksgiving crab is a gut punch.
“Our season just keeps getting cut narrower and narrower,” local crabber Dave Toriumi said. “I just don’t see the crabbing industry in Monterey Bay surviving.”
Toriumi, who fishes out of Moss Landing and Santa Cruz, relies heavily on earnings from salmon and crab season. The crab season delay, he estimates, could cost him and other small commercial fishing businesses anywhere from $20,000 to $60,000.
Crab is the first major money-making opportunity after salmon season ends for mom and pop fishing operations. And money is especially tight during those in-between months.
“We’re literally just trying to pay our bills and not go under,” Toriumi said.
Mike Conroy, the executive director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, said the impacts of the delay are wide-ranging.
“That Thanksgiving market can’t be recovered,” Conroy said. “It’s not just crabbers who are harmed by this though, it’s the processors, the offloaders, the fishing vessel crews, the restaurants, and the seafood consumers.”
But beyond that, Toriumi said this year’s delay means many on the Central Coast will be without an endearing holiday tradition.
“It’s always really cool to hear from friends and family saying ‘we had crab for Thanksgiving,’ ” Toriumi said. “Just knowing you’re a part of that industry, and that tradition… it’s so sad it’s going to be thrown away for us.”