‘It’s not ‘us versus the whales’’: Delayed crab season weighs heavily on Central Coast fishermen

Empty crab pots are stacked Santa Cruz harbor. The Dungeness crab season has been on hold to protect migrating whales.
Empty crab pots are stacked outside of the harbor in Santa Cruz. The Dungeness crab season has been on hold to protect migrating whales.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The Dungeness crab fishing season between Thanksgiving and New Year’s is the most lucrative for many fishermen, but consistent delays due to migrating humpback whales are causing a substantial financial toll that’s trickling down through the fishing industry.

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It was six days before Christmas and the December sun shone brightly off the placid waters of the Santa Cruz Harbor, illuminating towers of empty crab pots stacked on the edge of the docks. Inside a nearby meeting room, more than a dozen fishermen from Santa Cruz, Moss Landing and Monterey grabbed donuts and gray plastic chairs to discuss their most urgent concern: how to deal with the economic impact of a Dungeness crab season that, now more than a month behind schedule, had yet to open.

The traditional opening of the Dungeness crab fishing season on the West Coast typically aligns with the holiday season. It usually starts Nov. 15 and launches the popular crustacean into holiday feasts throughout the fall and into the winter. The crab fishing season between Thanksgiving and New Year’s is the most lucrative for many fishermen due to the high demand for crab, which sells for around $15 per pound at retail, and often more. As a result, the crab fishing season between late fall and spring can represent a majority of their income for the year.

However, in recent years, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) has postponed the season opener due to the presence of humpback whales, which migrate in the fall from the northern Pacific Coast down to breeding grounds off the coast of Mexico. Humpback whales are listed as an endangered species, although the population found along California, Oregon and Washington is recovering. Humpback whale abundance has increased 8.2% annually since the late 1980s, according to the 2021 stock assessment report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Unfortunately, the whales can become entangled in the lines that connect crab pots, which rest on the bottom of the ocean, to the buoys on the surface that indicate their location. Entanglements with fishery equipment can result in injury or even death and, in the past five years, the CDFW has delayed the season by several weeks to ensure that all the whales have safely passed through the area.

California crab fishing zones.
California crab fishing zones.
(Via California Department of Fish and Wildlife)

The California coast is divided into six zones ranging from north to south. Santa Cruz County is in Zone 4, which stretches from Pigeon Point just south of Half Moon Bay down to Lopez Point in Big Sur. Because the whales migrate from north to south, the northern zones typically open for commercial crab fishing earlier. Zones 1 and 2 were scheduled to open Dec. 1, but were delayed because of poor-quality meat due to skinny crabs. These zones were reassessed on Dec. 16, but CDFW has not yet said whether they will open.

In 2021, the Dungeness crab season opened on the Central Coast on Dec. 16, just in time for Christmas, but the year before it didn’t open until Dec. 30. This year, the season is delayed into the new year; CDFW will assess the situation on Jan. 15.

A vote to open with half gear

David Toriumi, a full-time commercial fisherman based in Santa Cruz, led Monday’s meeting. The most important action item was a vote on whether to accept a lifeline given to them by the CDFW: Although the whales had yet to completely clear the area, the fishermen would be allowed to fish with half of their permitted gear beginning Jan. 1. Less gear in the water would, officials hope, mean a lower chance of whale entanglement while still giving crab fishermen some income.

fishermen from around the Monterey Bay vote on whether to open the season with half of their gear
At a meeting Monday, fishermen from around Monterey Bay vote on whether to open the season with half of their gear on Jan. 1.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

It’s far from a perfect solution, but it’s something, and the 12 permit-holders present at the meeting voted unanimously to accept the offer. The CDFW doesn’t offer compensation to fishermen if the crab season is delayed due to whale migration, which leaves Santa Cruz residents like Toriumi in a difficult financial situation.

“Our seasons are so short now that we get crammed into positions where we need to go fish,” Toriumi said. The decision comes with a risk: If a whale becomes entangled in the lines, it could endanger the rest of the season not just locally but for the entire California coast. But Toriumi hopes it also gives fishermen an opportunity to show that they can fish safely alongside the whales, which could be crucial to opening the season earlier in the future while whales are still present.

Although Toriumi lives in Santa Cruz, he’s made the costly decision to move all of his crab gear up to Bodega Bay, where the season is expected to open soon, to fish for the winter. Last year, anticipating more delays for the Central Coast’s crab season, he pulled all of the equity out of his home to finance a larger boat that he can live on and which can support more pots. Smaller boats, like his other vessel, aren’t capable of making the journey, carry fewer pots and lack amenities to live aboard.

commercial fisherman David Toriumi
With the season still closed, commercial fisherman David Toriumi faces a winter away from his family in order to fish for crab in Bodega Bay.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“I’d love to work from home,” Toriumi said. “My family’s here. Now I’m going to have to spend Christmas, New Year’s, my birthday and my son’s birthday out of town. I’m probably going to have to live up there for three months.”

Valerie Phillips lives in Santa Cruz and fishes for Dungeness crab out of Half Moon Bay. She too is frustrated that the season hasn’t opened on time in five years and says she’s happy the fishermen voted to work with the CDFW.

“In the past few years, we’ve had options on the table that fishermen say don’t work for them for personal reasons, marketwise, and the department seems to be very frustrated that we won’t be open to options that they present,” Phillips said. “That we’re willing to work with [the CDFW] and take whatever [the department is] willing to put on the table is a plus for us.”

She’s currently bearing a financial burden due to lost income as well as an emotional one. “We currently fish from May to October out of state. I have a 5-year-old daughter so staying home during this part of the year is really crucial to getting her to school and maintaining our home life,” said Phillips. She isn’t looking forward to the possibility of fishing out of Northern California ports for the winter and being away from her daughter for long periods of time.

A “trickle-down effect”

Although the fishermen bear the financial brunt of the delay, they aren’t the only ones that are affected, says Santa Cruz Port Commissioner Dennis Smith. “The trickle-down effect is that we don’t get the travelers that come in [the harbor], fuel sales, people that come down here to buy crab. ... There’s just a variety of revenue loss for the port district,” said Smith. “I appreciate the whale entanglements, but there’s no consideration for the fishermen and what they’re losing.”

Hans Haveman, co-owner of H&H Fresh Fish, prioritizes sourcing from local fishermen to sell at his shop at the Santa Cruz Harbor. Typically, a line of folks waiting to purchase live crab will stretch from the door to his shop down the harbor during the holiday season. He estimates that he sells 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of crab over Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas and New Year’s. “That’s my whole winter money, generally,” he said. “And that’s gone right now.” This year, he was able to import a couple thousand crabs from Washington, but at a higher price than he would pay to local fishermen, and he incurred additional costs to keep them alive for a longer period of time.

An employee of H&H Fresh Fish holds up a pair of live crabs that were caught in Washington.
An employee of H&H Fresh Fish holds up a pair of live crabs that were caught in Washington. H&H currently has around 1,000 pounds of live crab that it will sell during the holidays.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Local fisherman Tim Obert, who is vice president of the Santa Cruz Commercial Fishermen’s Association and a member of the Dungeness Crab Task Force of California, says opening the season with half gear might not affect larger boats that can more easily travel north, but is vital to support smaller local fishermen. “If they have a smaller vessel, maybe they can’t live on it or they can’t afford the transportation of the crab gear so they’re stuck at their port,” he said. “It’s really important that we have the option for them to go fishing.”

He also hopes that opening with half gear could be a valuable tool in the future for times when whales are present. “Maybe instead of just closing the season down for the chance of risk [of whale entanglement], let’s go to a gear reduction so we can get by,” Obert said. “At least the guys that need to go make a check to pay their mortgage can have a chance.”

Toriumi clarifies that no one wants to see whales injured, but believes there needs to be a larger conversation about how to support fishermen in a future where whales are likely to be present during the vital crab season. “We all love whales,” he said. “We don’t want to kill them — those things are like mystic creatures to us.”

At the same time, he fears protecting the whales at all costs could mean the end of the local crab industry. “A big concern I have is that the connection between people and where this protein resource comes from will be lost,” he said. “It’s not ‘us versus the whales.’ The whole system needs to be looked at, and the only way anything’s ever going to be done is educating people.”

FOR THE RECORD: This story has been updated to clarify the status of the West Coast humpback whale population.