Commercial Dungeness crab season had been set to open Nov. 15, but amid concerns about whale safety that have delayed the season in recent years, the California Department of Fish & Wildlife has pushed it back to at least Dec. 1. “For many fishermen, this means there’s no income right now,” one veteran says, “and they’re hanging by the threads.”
Hoping for Dungeness crab this Thanksgiving? You’ll have to go without this year, at least for California-caught crab.
State officials have delayed the start of the commercial Dungeness crab season due to concerns around whale entanglements, marking the sixth year in a row it’s been pushed back. Now the season, which was slated to open Nov. 15, won’t begin until at least Dec. 1. The California Department of Fish & Wildlife (CDFW) will reevaluate the situation around Nov. 17 to determine next steps.
“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 CDFW director Charlton H. Bonham in a statement released Friday. “We will continue to work with both the recreational and commercial Dungeness crab fisheries to protect whales while working to maximize fishing opportunity.”
CDFW’s decision follows a truncated crab season that didn’t open until Dec. 31, 2022, only to close on April 15. In theory, the commercial Dungeness crab season could start mid-November and run as late as July. For California’s crab fishermen, the delay comes as yet another blow following the cancellation of this year’s salmon season.
“It’s really bad,” said Tim Obert of the conditions for local commercial fishermen. “This is the worst year I’ve seen before. We have always had the salmon to back up the crab.”
Obert, a Santa Cruz native who has been fishing for over two decades, owns one crab boat and is a partner in a second. He’d normally be fishing for both crab and salmon locally, but this year he’s had to look to other options, like heading north for tuna fishing.
“For many fishermen, this means there’s no income right now and they’re hanging by the threads,” he said. “However, we’re kind of used to it now.”
Obert serves as president of the Santa Cruz Commercial Fishermen’s Association and sits on the state’s Dungeness Crab Task Force. He says he understands the concerns about whale entanglements but thinks the risks might be overinflated.
“I think we [the state’s crab fishermen] are being a little mislabeled,” he said. “Most of the whales that have become entangled are freed. We had three entanglements last year but none resulted in fatalities that we know of.”
(According to the latest data available from the CDFW, there were three cases of humpback whales getting entangled in commercial crab gear in California during the 2022-23 season. Two other humpbacks were entangled in what’s categorized as “unknown fishing gear.”)
The now-regular delays have also shifted the industry’s once-dependable markets. Last year’s shortened season meant fishermen missed the peak demand for the Dungeness crab market.
“My biggest days for sales are usually the first day of crab season, then Thanksgiving, the day after Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s,” said Hans Haveman, co-owner of H&H Fresh Fish Co. “Those are usually my biggest sales days in the winter.”
Last year’s late start meant fishermen missed those holiday opportunities. The result? Once the season finally opened, a glut of crab flooded the market resulting in lower prices. Live crabs went for $9 per pound at H&H this past winter, almost half as much as the year prior.
“Because we are missing those holiday markets, what happens is there’s a stockpile and things don’t fly off the shelf like they normally would,” said Obert. “What happens is that we have to sell it really cheap. Overhead has gone up, but prices are going down.”
Haveman says he can get crab from Oregon and Washington, but he prefers to support his local industry whenever possible and to be able to pay local fishermen top prices. While bigger operations can go elsewhere to fish for crab, it’s the smaller operations that will struggle the most, he added.
Fishermen like Obert can also look to other species, like groundfish and black cod, but consumer demand just isn’t there yet, he said. That sentiment is echoed by Haveman.
While fishermen like Obert look for opportunities to pivot, it’s hard not to get frustrated.
“We’re conservative people, we love the ocean, we love the wildlife,” he said of himself and his fellow fishermen. “No one wants to harm anything. If any humpback whale gets entangled, it’s no good. We’re trying to come up with alternatives but it’s kind of an endless battle and we’re trying to manage the best we can.”
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