For the third consecutive year, Dungeness crab season in the Bay Area has been delayed due to concerns of marine entanglement, officials said last week.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife announced on Nov. 1 that the scheduled Nov. 15 start of the commercial crab season would be delayed in waters stretching the length of the Bay Area to protect concentrations of humpback whales and Pacific leatherback turtles, which can get tangled in crab pot lines. 

Local restrictions will be at least one week and will be reevaluated by Nov. 21. During the delay, commercial crabbing won’t be allowed in the state’s Fishing Zones 3 and 4, which span from the Sonoma-Mendocino county line to Lopez Point in Monterey County. But unlike previous restrictions that targeted commercial operations, this is the first year that recreational fishers are limited as well.  

The season did open for sport fishermen but they can only use hoop nets or crab snares instead of crab pot lines. Unlike the crab pots, the nets and snares aren’t left out on the water for long periods of the day and reduce the risk of entanglement. 

“This is the first time the recreational Dungeness crab fishery is subject to similar measures as commercial crabbers to help protect whales and sea turtles,” said CDFW Director Charlton Bonham in a statement Monday. “We recognize that change takes time but thank all Californians who treasure these recreational fishing opportunities.”

California has seen its commercial Dungeness crab season delayed every year since 2015 except for one season. The National Marine Fisheries Service reported 71 whale entanglement cases on the West Coast from Baja to British Columbia in 2016, the highest since it began reporting the data in 1982. Of the 71, 66 were in California. In 2019, the service confirmed 26 whale entanglements off the West Coast, though just three were the result of commercial crab fishing off of California and 15 weren’t identified with a particular fishery. Of the dead whales, 17 were humpback whales, eight were gray whales and one was a minke whale.

Commercial crabbing in two zones north of the Bay Area won’t open until Dec. 1, and the state hasn’t yet surveyed those areas for wildlife risk. The data from the CDFW comes from surveys conducted over the past two months in waters off the Bay Area. The state’s Risk Assessment and Mitigation Program gives the department flexibility to delay or adjust the season to protect migrating whales off California’s coastline. 

That policy comes in part from a 2017 lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity, which sued the state over increasing whale and sea turtle entanglements in California fishing gear. The policy states that crab season can be delayed when 20 whales are sighted in a day. 

Officials said aerial surveys on Oct. 18 and 19 counted 48 humpback whales in Zone 3 from Mendocino to the coastline south of Half Moon Bay. The CDFW data identified an average of 18.9 humpback whales in Monterey Bay during half-day trips from Oct. 12-18. 

Surveys from NOAA researchers throughout October showed at least four Pacific leatherback sea turtles in the fishing territory. On Oct. 16, researchers encountered an adult male leatherback turtle weighing 1,419 pounds three miles west of Pillar Point Harbor.

There are an estimated 50 Pacific leatherback turtles in California waters annually, a sharp decline from an estimated 178 three decades ago, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

August Howell is a staff writer for the Review covering city government and public safety. Previously, he was the Review’s community, arts and sports reporter. He studied journalism at the University of Oregon.

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