California’s Dungeness crab season is delayed again past the Nov. 15 opening date, owing to high numbers of humpback whales observed off the coast, Charlton Bonham, director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, announced Thursday.

 Bonham and state officials will reassess the risks of whale entanglements in crab gear on Nov. 17, with an eye toward a possible Dec. 1 opening. But luck has not been with crab fishermen in recent years, and this is the fifth annual season delay in a row. The fall 2022 opening was delayed three times, finally opening on Dec. 31 but with a 50 percent trap reduction through January.

This time the commercial fishery opening will be delayed in Fishing Zones 3, 4, 5 and 6. Meanwhile deployment and use of crab traps in any recreational fishery is temporarily prohibited in Fishing Zones 3 and 4, with a recreational fleet advisory in all zones, according to a statement issued by Bonham’s office.

“Large aggregations of humpback whales continue to forage between Bodega Bay and Monterey and allowing the use of crab traps would increase the risk of an entanglement in those fishing zones,” said Bonham. “We will continue to work with both the recreational and commercial Dungeness crab fisheries to protect whales while working to maximize fishing opportunity.”

“We appreciate the ongoing commitment by both the recreational and commercial fleets and the California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group to manage entanglement risk in this iconic fishery

The decision was expected following the state’s most recent consultations with the working group, and based in part on NOAA observer reports from aerial surveys from Oct. 4 to 6, according to the California DFW.

On those days air NOAA crews “observed 73 humpback whales in Fishing Zone 3 and 30 humpback whales in Fishing Zone 4,” according to Bonham’s statement. Meanwhile, “Cascadia Research surveyors observed a minimum of 35 and maximum of 89 humpback whales in Fishing Zone 3 during vessel surveys conducted on October 5, 10, 13, 14, and 16.”

Under California law, “I must implement a Fishing Zone delay or other protective management action in the commercial Dungeness crab fishery,” Bonham concluded. Data from commercial whale watching trips in Fishing Zone 4 through the summer and fall also showed a continued presence of humpback whales, with the most recent weekly running average of 16.2 humpback whales in Monterey Bay, according to Bonham.

The historic November opening is a big day for crabbers and California culinary tradition that calls for Dungeness on the table at Thanksgiving. It’s been pain for fishermen and consumers alike.

“There are people in a world of hurt and who are trying to make it work, and it’s not easy for them,” fisherman Dick Ogg, president of the Bodega Bay Fisherman’s Marketing Association and a 2019 National Fisherman Highliner, told the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. “It’s just a tough time. We’re all really struggling.”

Crab fishermen have been working on trial testing of on demand, or so-called pop-up gear that keeps buoys and vertical lines on the bottom until recalled by fishermen for retrieval. The environmental group Oceana made a renewed pitch for the gear Friday.

“The recent whale entanglement numbers have exceeded triggers for management actions and will make it difficult for the state to acquire take authorizations under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. For this reason, stricter protections to prevent entanglements are needed as California updates its regulations next year,” said Geoff Shester, Oceana’s California campaign director and senior scientist who is a member of the state’s Dungeness working group.

Fishermen tested Sub Sea Sonics pop-up systems in hundreds of trials during spring 2023 under experimental fishing permits, according to Oceana, and “a larger, commercial scale testing is planned for spring 2024 to enable authorization of the gear as alternative gear by 2025.”

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