Posts Tagged Dungeness crab season

Nov 22 2019

California agrees with crabbers to postpone Dungeness season in bid to safeguard whales and fishing fleet

Owner Peter Bjeldanes, left, and deckhand Ethan Snyderman load crab pots onto the fishing boat the “Talisman” at Spud Point Marina in Bodega Bay on Monday, Nov. 18, 2019. (BETH SCHLANKER/ PD)


A bid led by Bodega Bay’s commercial fishing fleet succeeded Wednesday in persuading state wildlife officials to postpone the opening of Dungeness crab season to safeguard protected whales species still lingering in the fishing grounds.

In a move at the behest of the crab industry, Chuck Bonham, the state fish and wildlife director, agreed to push back the season opener to Dec. 15. Crab fishing was slated to open Friday along the coast from Sonoma to San Mateo counties.

The decision is subject to two days of public comment ending Friday afternoon.

It’s the second delay in the season because of the heavy presence of threatened and endangered whales in coastal waters off the greater Bay Area, where the commercial Dungeness crab season traditionally opens Nov. 15.

Fresh crab from Washington state should be available at local markets for Thanksgiving, local fishermen said.

Bonham’s move came after commercial crabbers in San Francisco and Half Moon Bay voted to join those in Bodega Bay, who had resolved a day earlier to stand down from the Friday opener to avoid entangling whales. Up to 86  humpbacks were observed in the region during an aerial survey Monday.

The state’s move ensures that fishing boats from out of the area don’t have the fishing grounds to themselves come Friday and risk curtailing the season in any encounter with a whale.

Under the terms of a legal settlement reached in March between the state and an environmental group, even a single marine mammal entanglement could prompt restrictions in the commercial crab fishery, including closure.

“I think all of the guys are on the same page,” Bodega Bay Fishermens’ Association President Lorne Edwards said Wednesday after the other two ports decided to stand with Bodega Bay and forgo the opener. “We don’t want to lose the season.”

Crescent City fisherman Tom Wright, one of about a half-dozen skippers who motored south to crab because northern grounds remained closed, said another crabber who continued past Bodega Bay to San Francisco described whales so dense “it was like traveling through Sea World.”

“This is basically industry suicide if we go out and catch a whale,” Wright said.

The Center for Biological Diversity, in its 2017 lawsuit against the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, accused the agency of insufficient regulation of the commercial crabbing fleet, saying entanglement in fishing gear imperiled listed populations of humpback and blue whales, as well as sea turtles. That year, a record 71 entanglements were reported.

The settlement reached this year with the state, signed also by fishing representatives, included substantial concessions, including shortened seasons and sharp consequences in the event of an entanglement.

It also includes a slate of in-season check-ins that require Bonham to consult with a diverse working group of fishermen, scientists, regulators and environmentalists trying to limit entanglements of marine mammals.

Prior to Wednesday’s decision, Bonham’s first act under the new protocol was to delay the Nov. 15 opener to Friday, hoping to balance the continued presence of whales that eventually will migrate to wintering grounds off the coast of Mexico while allowing commercial crabbers time to land fresh crab for Thanksgiving.

Then the agency sent up a plane to take a look at the number of whales in the area, including Point Reyes, the Gulf of the Farallones and Half Moon Bay. Their findings Monday prompted alarm in the crabbing community.

Entangled whales can drag fishing gear for hundreds of miles and often die from their injuries.

Fisherman Dick Ogg, vice president of the Bodega Bay Fishermens’ Association and a member of the crab gear working group, was on the flyover. He said he immediately saw potential for another spike in harmful encounters with whales.

“This was the potential,” Ogg said, “and, had we not gone to (the Department of Fish and Wildlife), it’s very likely we would have ended up in a similar situation.”

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Dec 21 2015

No Christmas crabs for Californians this year

The savory-sweet meat of Dungeness crab isn’t going to make coastal Californians’ Christmas spreads this year.

Though the neurotoxin responsible for delaying crab season — the algae-produced domoic acid — has slowly begun to wane in the tissues and organs of West Coast Dungeness, the last round of tests in California, taken off more than a dozen ports in late November and early December, showed many samples still solidly above the limit of 30 parts per million. 

Two clean tests, a week a part, will be necessary before crabbers are able to ply the seas again, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. 

Forty-percent of the Dec. 1 Crescent City samples exceeded levels deemed safe, at a total average of 34 parts per million, down from 44 percent and 40 ppm Nov. 18, 

Rough waters have delayed sampling for much of this month, said Senior Environmental Scientist Pete Kalvass, however, he anticipated a boat would be able to get out of Crescent City this week between storms. 

“Hopefully we’ll get the season started after the holidays, but I want to make sure everything is safe for the public,” said Tim Potter, owner of the F/V Pacific Pride, who had been responsible for fishing out the November samples. 

Potter had just returned Tuesday from the A Dock at the Crescent City Harbor, where he’d been hanging Christmas lights on his boat with his wife. Over the phone, he said he wasn’t “chomping at the bit to get on the water.” 

“I don’t get to relax and do a lot of calm stuff. I’m just enjoying time with my family while I have it,” he said. 

Potter’s boat was one of a handful of volunteers to leave pots to collect 12 crabs at graduated depths —15, 25 and 35 fathoms — off both St. George’s Reef and the mouth of the Klamath River. 

Following protocol habitually taken during the pre-season to test for quality and size as well as domoic acid, the crabs are then frozen and shipped overnight to the California Department of Public Health labs in Richmond, to be tested for solely for domoic acid. 

The volunteers pay for the fuel, and the Del Norte Fisherman’s Marketing Association picks up the tab for shipping costs.

Most of the higher domoic acid levels detected have been in Dungeness collected off the North Coast, or in rock crab found in waters surrounding the Channel Islands.

Meanwhile, Humboldt and Del Norte county razor clams are the only bivalve still deemed unsafe for consumption, since CDPH lifted all other health advisories on recreational clams and mollusks Dec. 9. 

Shellfish south of Bodega Bay, and in Oregon, have seemingly dropped off their domoic acid a little more quickly, according to CDPH figures. 

“It’s kind of counterintuitive,” said Kalvass, noting that algae production is generally associated with higher water temperatures. 

Asked why this might be, University of California – Santa Cruz researcher Clarissa Anderson wrote in an email: “Our spotty pier-based monitoring is not extensive enough to really answer this question.”

She had a few guesses, however. Small resurgences of Pseudo-nitzschia, the single-celled chain-forming algae that produces domoic acid, have been seen since the large algae bloom that caused alarm this summer had dissipated some. This could account for how crabs may continue to ingest domoic acid, she said. 

“Crabs are acquiring DA (domoic acid) in the sediments where there is a lot of DA from the massive bloom. It could be that we just had great DA production in CA hotspots over the summer/early fall, thereby creating a larger pool of DA in the sediments (for) Dungeness to acquire,” said Anderson. 

The North Coast and areas in San Diego are still projected to be hot spots, though this has not been substantiated, she wrote. 

CDFW Director Charlton Bonham has said once the season opens again, there will be a lot of such questions that will need to be vigorously researched.

In the meantime, crabbers will continue to scrape by and volunteer their time and fuel to collect samples, hoping that when the season does open, all the publicity about domoic acid won’t scare customers away, said Capt. Randy Smith of the F/V Mistasea. 

“It’s really hard. Your bills keep going and we’re just sitting here. And with Christmas coming that’s really hard on the crews. That part’s the shame, but we’ve sat for months and months in the past,” he said, conjuring up past seasons stalled by crab that was too small or too poor in quality.

 “There’s no history or data available with domoic acid. It’s just a guess,” Smith said. “You can guess all day long if you want. With soft shell we know what we’re doing in numbers, but with this we don’t have any idea when we’re going to get out there. We’ve all been ready for a couple of months.”

christmasboatsTim Potter and his wife decorated the Pacific Pride with Christmas lights this week, relishing the free time while waiting for crab season to open. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson

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Dec 16 2015

Crab pots lie empty, boats idled as toxic algae stalls a San Francisco tradition

 Dungeness crabs


It was quiet on Pier 45. Crab pots were stacked neatly in rows. Idled fishing vessels bobbed at their berths. One of the few dock workers present made small talk on his cellphone. Another puttered by on an empty forklift.

It was just after dawn on a recent weekday. Larry Collins, a veteran of San Francisco’s crab industry, sat in his small shed of an office in a wharf warehouse and made note of the absence of activity at what should have been the frenetic advent of another San Francisco Dungeness crab season.

“There’s nothing going on right now,” Collins said. “Nobody’s working. By now, we would be bustling here. Working until midnight. Every night working on our boats. Forklifts moving product. Everybody would be working. Now, nobody’s working.”

The pause in the crab season can be traced to a toxic algae that is rare to the coastal waters outside San Francisco Bay but bloomed this year amid rising ocean temperatures. The algae produces a neurotoxin, domoic acid, that doesn’t faze crabs, but can sicken and even kill humans.

Acting on a state health advisory, the Department of California Fish and Wildlife has suspended indefinitely the commercial and recreational Dungeness crab seasons, which traditionally open in mid-November.

Weekly tests on crab samples have showed reductions in domoic acid levels in some stretches offshore. Still, not enough improvement has been made to open the season.

This has left Collins and others who catch, market, cook and consume what in San Francisco is a celebrated birthright foodstuff all caught in a state of crustaceous interruptus. Thanksgiving is gone. Christmas is going. Maybe by New Year’s, goes the optimists’ new mantra.

“Crab here is like a religion,” said Collins, a 58-year-old walrus of a man who fished out of San Francisco with his wife for more than three decades. A younger man now operates Collins’ 46-foot vessel, the Autumn Gale.

His time is occupied running the Crab Boat Owners Assn., along with building up a fishing cooperative that allows members to market their catches more directly, eliminating some middle links in the economic food chain.

Collins and other wharf denizens paint the opening of crab seasons past as a festival, with widows of fishermen tossing wreaths into the water, a priest blessing the fleet and vessels racing to be the first to return to the docks with crabs.

“When a crab boat came in,” said Angela Cincotta, a fourth-generation proprietor at the Alioto-Lazio Fish Co., “you would see people running from three blocks away just to see the boat unload.”

Not this season, she said: “There is no buzz on the street, no people, no excitement.”

Restaurants that typically order crabs by the thousands still call for the Alaskan crabs she keeps live in a tank. But they only want one or two. And given all the public discussion of domoic acid here, Cincotta said, some of her customers seem wary of eating any fish caught in Pacific waters.

Like many San Franciscans, Collins and his companions in the fish trade have absorbed wave after wave of change, a transformation of what once was a working city into a pricey hybrid enclave for tourists and new money types from Silicon Valley who can afford rents that have climbed halfway to the stars and beyond.

Collins remembers when the Fisherman’s Wharf district was filled with machine shops that turned out custom replacement parts for the fleet. Today it might be tough to replace a broken water pump — but scoring a souvenir T-shirt or renting a Segway is a cinch.

“This was a small town,” he said. “We have lost a lot of that. Now it’s all techies with a lot of money.”

Even before this season’s suspension, the coastal fishing fleet up and down California had been challenged by diminished fish counts, heightened regulation and related economic challenges.

“We’ve gone in my 30 years from 5,000 boats to 500,” Collins said. “It’s not a pretty picture.”

He blamed increasing diversion of water over time for agriculture and urban populations, water that otherwise would flow from the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, through the Delta and San Francisco Bay, and into the Pacific.

“You need the flows, you absolutely need the flows,” he said of water captured before it can complete its natural course to the sea. “It’s not wasted water. This is a whole ecosystem, a delicate ecosystem, and we have managed to screw it up. Thirty years ago, the catches were huge compared to now. Everybody wants to develop. They call it progress. That’s not progress.”

And yet for all the economic misery brought on by historic trends in general, and by a suspended crab season in particular, Collins and his colleagues are in no rush to harvest crabs this winter. They understand that losing public faith in the safety of their seafood would be a much bigger and lasting blow.

“We are not like the beef industry,” Collins said. “We don’t do recalls.”

It is good that patience is hard-wired into those who fish, for fun or commerce. In fact, the only allies California crabbers can count on now, like Tolstoy’s old general in “War and Peace,” are patience and time.

Warming water created the algae bloom and cooling water will erase it.

“Mother Nature bats first and last in this one,” Collins said. “Just like it always does.”

For now, all he and other acolytes of the San Francisco Dungeness crab can do for now is wait. That the waiting is necessary does not make it any easier.

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