Don't melt the butter yet
Usually, the crab is plentiful at Pillar Point Harbor beginning in November. This year, however, the commercial fishing season has been delayed until after Thanksgiving. Review file photo

The commercial Dungeness crab season has been delayed by two weeks following whale sightings in the fishing grounds off the San Mateo County coast, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The season was scheduled to open on Nov. 15 but is now slated for Dec. 1.

This year’s delay stemmed from the first-ever recommendation based on a new set of regulations created by the department, in consultation with the Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group as well as industry and environmental experts.

The new regulations, developed as part of the department’s Risk Assessment and Mitigation Program, aims to prevent gear entangling blue whales, humpback whales and Pacific leatherback sea turtles — species protected by the federal Endangered Species Act. Entanglement constitutes “taking,” which is illegal under the act.

The new regulations stipulate that the department conduct monthly assessments using real-time data on the presence of these species to determine when to open or close a fishery. The last data compilation was done in late October. The next wave of data collection is expected before the Thanksgiving weekend.

In recent weeks, aerial surveillance spotted 48 whales in the zone stretching from Point Arena in Mendocino County to Pigeon Point in Pescadero. Vessel-based surveys estimated as many as 345 humpbacks whales in those waters.

As a result of the delay, the tradition of buying Dungeness crabs for Thanksgiving is expected to cost more. Last year, when the crab season was delayed by about the same time, local sellers like the Half Moon Bay Fish Market offered crabs from Washington state. Locally caught crab typically sells for $6.99 to $7.99 per pound. Washington crabs are now available but at double the price.

Whale and turtle entanglements in 2015 and 2016 prompted the department to partner with commercial permit holders for fishing vessels to begin developing these regulations.

The crabbing season was also delayed in November 2019 after whale sightings. Prior to the adoption of the new regulations, Senate Bill 1309 gave the department interim authority to manage risk in fisheries.

Domoic acid, a microscopic neurotoxin that can get into a crab’s system, is another hazard that can delay or close the fishing season. Recent samples found that domoic acid levels were low enough to present no threat, according to a statement.

Recreational fisheries, which aren’t regulated by the department, are expected to open as scheduled on Saturday, Nov. 7.

However, a new proposal up for a vote at the department’s December meeting would grant authority to the department to regulate recreational fisheries. The proposed action would allow the department to implement in-season delays or closures, similar to the risk assessment done for commercial fisheries. If adopted, implementation would likely begin at the start of the 2021 season.

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