High concentrations of humpback whales making their seasonal migration along the California coast led state officials to delay the commercial Dungeness crab fishery opener for the fourth year in a row.

Fishermen were looking to a Nov. 15 start date south of the Sonoma/Mendocino county line in Fishing Zones 3, 4, 5 and 6. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife announced Oct. 28 the season would be delayed.

“Based on recent surveys, large aggregations of humpbacks whales continue to forage in California coastal waters and allowing the use of crab traps would increase the risk of an entanglement,” said Charlton H. Bonham, director of the state DFW, in announcing the decision.

The state’s Risk Assessment and Mitigation Program (RAMP) collects data on whales, leatherback turtles and other wildlife that go into a scoring system, used to evaluate the risk of entanglements with fishing gear.

An Oct. 25 update shows aerial and vessel surveys counted whale numbers in Fishing Zones 1 through 5 that exceeded the RAMP triggers for fishing restrictions. Three days later the commercial season was ordered delayed, while recreational crab fishermen are restricted from using traps when their season opens Nov. 5.

Aerial surveys in mid-October 2022 tracked concentrations of humpback whales migrating off the California coast. NOAA graphic via California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“Humpback whales are still present in all Fishing Zones, and recently documented abundances indicate migration to their wintering areas has yet to commence,” the Oct. 25 update document states. “Monterey Bay Whale Watch data indicate the high number of humpback whales seen in Fishing Zone 4 is well above historical patterns for this time of year.”

The Monterey Bay Whale Watch data indicated low presence of blue whales in Fishing Zone 4, consistent with historical patterns for the fall, the report says.

“However, aerial surveys have documented multiple blue whales within Fishing Zone 1, and Whale Watch 2.0 habitat suitability predictions indicate high habitat suitability for blue whales is present throughout Fishing Zones 1-6,” according to the update. “Given recent blue whale sightings and continued presence of high-quality leatherback sea turtle foraging habitat, it is premature to conclude migration out of the Fishing Grounds has occurred for these species.”

Newly updated data and a reassessment around Nov. 23 could possibly bring a commercial Dungeness opening Dec. 1 if the risk of entanglement diminishes. The delay means the crab fleet and its customers will miss out again on the Thanksgiving market for Dungeness as in recent years.

The worst was a chaotic 2020-21 season, when the Nov. 15 opener was delayed twice until days before Christmas, throwing the traditional holiday market into disarray. Then crab fishermen and buyers feuded over prices, with a settlement and organized start to the season delayed into January 2021.

State officials said they are planning for the next risk assessment on or before Nov. 23, and Bonham will then re-evaluate the recreational crab trap restriction and commercial fishery delay in Fishing Zones 3-6, as well as potential need for any management actions for the commercial fishery in Fishing Zones 1 and 2.

“That risk assessment is expected to inform the potential for a statewide commercial fishery opener on Dec. 1 and the potential to modify the recreational trap restriction,” according to state officials.

“We will continue to work with both the recreational and commercial Dungeness crab fisheries to protect whales and sea turtles while striving to maximize fishing opportunity,” said Bonham. “We appreciate the ongoing commitment by the fleet and the California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group to protect these incredible animals. These partnerships will continue to shape the future of both fisheries and we look forward to continuing the important work of providing fishing opportunity in the coming weeks.”

There were 15 confirmed entanglements of humpback whales reported off California between Jan. 1 and Oct. 20, 2022, according to National Marine Fisheries Service data reported in the Oct. 25 update.

“Eleven of the confirmed humpback whale entanglements were reported in Fishing Zone 4, two were reported in Fishing Zone 6, and one each were reported in Fishing Zones 1 and 3,” according to the update.

“Three of the humpback whale entanglements have been confirmed in California commercial Dungeness crab gear, two were confirmed in Oregon commercial Dungeness crab gear, and two were confirmed in gillnet gear. The National Marine Fisheries Service has classified the remainder as occurring in unidentified pot/trap gear. There have been no confirmed entanglements of blue whales or leatherback sea turtles during this period."

Associate Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for more than 30 years and a 25-year field editor for National Fisherman before joining our Commercial Marine editorial staff in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.

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