Not Crabby

“It is absurd they delayed us but allowed recreational sport fishing to go ahead,” says commercial crab industry rep Ben Platt. “There’s the same risk for entangling a whale.”

Thanksgiving dinner will not include fresh-caught Dungeness crab this year, as state officials delayed the opening of commercial fishing from Nov. 15 to Dec. 1.

Eating Dungeness crab on Thanksgiving, instead of or alongside turkey, is a tradition that goes back decades in the Monterey and San Francisco bay areas. But as concern grew over whales getting entangled in the lines that get dropped to the ocean floor with crab traps, new conservation rules came into play.

In early November, aerial surveys and whale watching boats spotted dozens of humpbacks pausing to forage off the coast as part of a migration that eventually takes them to breeding grounds in Mexican waters. Those observations triggered action by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW).

“While no one wants to delay the season, CDFW and the Working Group feel a delay is necessary to reduce the risk of entanglement,” CDFW Director Charlton Bonham said in a statement, referring to the California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group, which includes trade representatives, environmentalists and government officials. “The fleet has gone to great lengths to be more nimble in order to protect whales and turtles, and the results are promising.”

The decision to delay drew positive reactions from both the environmental groups and the fishing industry. Oceana’s senior scientist Geoff Shester, for example, said, “We commend the fishing community for taking proactive measures to ensure a whale-safe fishery off California.”

Ben Platt, president of the California Coast Crab Association, seemed to agree. Since a single whale entanglement could shut down the entire season, he said, “It’s a prudent decision to wait two weeks to prevent that possibility from happening.”

But when reached for comment, Platt clarifies that the situation is far from resolved and says the crab industry is being forced to go along with rules that are “unnecessary” and “too restrictive.”

“The only reason we are supporting the decision is that there’s a new law that says if we have an interaction with even one or two whales it could shut down our whole season,” he says. “This is a thriving and rapidly growing population of whales. Our impact on them is basically zero. It’s unfair not only to the commercial fishing fleet but also all the folks who have crabs for the holidays.”

Asaf Shalev is a staff writer at the Monterey County Weekly. He covers the environment, agriculture and K-12 education, as well as Seaside, Marina, Sand City, Big Sur and Carmel Valley.

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