Humpback whales and leatherback turtles off the central California coast prompted state officials to postpone the commercial Dungeness season opener in two fishing zones – and for the first time impose similar temporary restrictions on recreational users of crab traps.

The commercial fishery south of the Sonoma/Mendocino county line had been scheduled to open on Nov. 15 in fishing zones 3, 4, 5 and 6. But the opener is delayed in zones 3 and 4 – the Sonoma/Mendocino county line to Lopez Point – to avoid potential for humpbacks and leatherback turtles getting entangled in crab gear.

Under the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Risk Assessment and Mitigation Program, a delayed start or a closure can be triggered when more than 20 migrating whales are tracked in a fishing zone.

“Aerial surveys, vessel-based surveys, and satellite telemetry data indicate aggregations of humpback whales and several leatherback sea turtles still present within fishing zones 3 and 4,” according to a Nov. 1 department statement about the delay.

Zones 5 and 6 are scheduled to open November 15 under a fleet advisory, pending domoic acid testing results.

Fishermen and state officials hope to avoid a repeat of the chaotic 2020-21 season, when the Nov. 15 opener was delayed twice until days before Christmas, throwing the traditional holiday market into disarray.

On top of that, crabbers rebelled against a $2.50 price offered by West Coast buyers, holding out for $3.30 on par with past seasons. The fleet finally settled for $2.75 and set gear with an “organized start” Jan . 11.

This fall marks the first time recreational crab traps are restricted to reduce entanglement potential in zones 3 and 4. The season had been scheduled to open statewide Nov. 6, but temporary restrictions will remain in those zones until lifted by the department.

Recreational take of Dungeness crab by other methods, including hoop nets and crab snares, is not affected by the temporary trap restriction.

“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 agency Director Charlton Bonham in announcing the changes. "We continue to value and appreciate the work put in by the fleet and the California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group.”

The commercial fishery in zones 1 and 2 is not scheduled to open until Dec. 1 and crab meat quality test results are not yet available. Fish and Wildlife officials have “not yet evaluated the need for any actions to reduce marine life entanglement risk in these zones,” according to the agency.

The next risk assessment is expected by Nov. 22 and Bonham will reconsider the delays and whether any actions are required for zones 1 and 2.

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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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