The Dungeness crab season off California’s central coast will be delayed by two weeks to Dec. 1 to give more time for humpback whales to migrate out of the area, state wildlife officials announced late Wednesday.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife will assess the whale movements and risk for entanglements in fishing gear again in the central and northern coast areas before the rescheduled opening, said the agency’s director Charlton Bonham.

The delay follows the agency’s Nov. 1 release of its final Risk Assessment and Mitigation Program (RAMP). Those regulations could result in shutting down the fishery if any entanglements occurs, and the risk assessment conducted by state officials in consultation with the Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group is the first assessment under the new rules.

“While no one wants to delay the season, CDFW and the Working Group feel a delay is necessary to reduce the risk of entanglement,” Bonham said in announcing the delayed opening. “The fleet has gone to great lengths to be more nimble in order to protect whales and turtles, and the results are promising. This year for the first time in a long time it looks like we don’t have to worry about domoic acid, which is good news.”

Days earlier the California Coast Crab Association warned the RAMP regulations would “punitively devastate” the Dungeness fleet by closing it even in the event of whales found entangled in gear of unknown origin. Association president Ben Platt said delaying the season opener is the right move.

“We support any decision that will allow for the best commercial crab fishing season opportunities for our fishermen,” Platt said in a statement. “The Whale Working Group, which includes CCCA representatives, agreed with CDFW that the presence of significant numbers of humpback whales off our coast warranted a delay for the start of the season, until whales migrate out of the area.

“Based on CDFW’s and the Working Group consensus on a delayed opener, we support that decision,” said Platt. “Since the new RAMP rules, which went into effect a few days ago, could shut crab fishing down for even one whale interaction with our gear, it’s a prudent decision to wait two weeks to prevent that possibility from happening.”

The decision is similar to the 2019 season delay that was inspired by Bodega Bay fishermen’s decision to voluntarily sit out a scheduled Nov. 22 opening to avoid whales concentrated and feeding near Point Reyes and Half Moon Bay. That move by the Bodega Bay association led state officials to reach out to other ports and get an overall consensus for delaying the season.

But fishermen are alarmed over the final version of RAMP rules, which the crab association says disregard suggestions from the fleet “for the balance of common-sense marine life protection with the economic and cultural importance of the historical fishing communities of coastal California.”

“Regulators seem to be more concerned about the optics in the media of the rare occurrence of an entangled whale than the fact that the populations of these marine mammals, which migrate off our coast, are skyrocketing, and may soon be eligible for removal from the Endangered Species List,” said Platt.

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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