At Lucas Wharf in Bodega Bay, dozens of commercial fishing boats have been preparing for California’s commercial Dungeness crab season, which opened statewide on Wednesday. The recreational crab season kicked off already, on Nov. 4.
The next few weeks will be critical for fishermen like Nick Hofland of Occidental, in western Sonoma County.
“This is the best time of year,” says Hofland.
He’s been loading up his boat — the Presley Capri — with squid and mackerel for crab bait. Next to him, a boat from Eureka named the Humbug is loading up its mesh crab pots.
These fishermen are relieved because for the first time in three years, the crab season is starting on time.
“It’s kind of exciting, because they get to go for the first time [in years] no strike, no domoic acid,” says Craig Thompson, who leases Lucas Wharf, along with Hofland.
Domoic acid is a toxin that accumulates in Dungeness crab and can cause severe illness if eaten.
But health officials have given both commercial and recreational crabbers the green light this year.
For recreational crabbers, the California Department of Public Health is warning not to consume crab viscera when collected from two points along the northern coast: north of Laguna Point in Mendocino County to the Humboldt Bay North Jetty, and north of the Klamath River in Humboldt County up to the Oregon border.
The fishery is worth in the ballpark of $60 million for the state — and it’s also one of the most sustainable. Only males of a certain size can be caught, big enough that they’ve probably mated a couple of times already.
“The fishery has been well managed and sustainably managed, so people can feel good about eating Dungeness crab this season and every year,” says Tom Dempsey, with the Nature Conservancy in California.
But the industry is facing challenges.
“One thing that the fishery has been dealing with in the last few years is an increase in the observed entanglements with whales,” says Dempsey.
Whales can get caught in the ropes connecting crab pots to buoys floating on the surface. Prior to 2014, entanglements were rare: fewer than 10 per year. In 2016 there were 71.
The entanglements have prompted an environmental organization, the Center for Biological Diversity, to sue the state, claiming California is failing to protect whales.
Dempsey’s organization (not involved in the lawsuit) is part of a working group, along with leaders in the crabbing industry. They develop best practices for how to deploy and collect fishing gear to avoid future entanglements as much as possible, and they train fishermen to respond to incidents. Dempsey has seen the industry take the problem very seriously, he says, and expects the number of entanglements to decrease in the future.
“Most fishermen I’ve talked to up and down the coast of California have said they’ve seen real response and real improvement in how the industry overall is fishing that gear.”
Fishermen also realize, he says, that there are no short-term solutions to preventing wildlife entanglements. They’ll have to remain vigilant for years to come.