Halt of Dungeness crab fishing season because of whales off coast has been lifted

A Southern California fish market owner was inundated with requests for fresh Dungeness crabs for the holidays, but the only way she could get them was to pay a premium to have them flown overnight from Oregon and Washington.

That’s because the California Dungeness crab fishing fleet – only about 100 active boats – has been kept off the water by the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife because of numerous whales and turtles swimming in the areas where crab pots would be set.

Shala Mansur-O’Keefe, owner of Jon’s Fish Market, cooks a Dungeness crab at the market and restaurant at the harbor in Dana Point, CA on Friday, December 30, 2022. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Jon’s Fish Market sells fresh Dungeness crab at the market and restaurant at the harbor in Dana Point, CA. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

People dine at Jon’s Fish Market at the harbor in Dana Point, CA on Friday, December 30, 2022. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)



On Friday, Shala Mansur-O’Keefe, who runs Jon’s Fish Market in Dana Point Harbor, was awaiting her load of live Dungeness crabs just in time for the weekend’s celebrations. Customers eagerly awaited word the succulent crustaceans had arrived, she said.

But, because they came from Oregon and Washington, the crabs would sell for $27.10 a pound. Four years ago, when Mansur-O’Keefe got crabs from the California fishery, the cost was $16 a pound, they were available in time for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and she ordered as many as 500 pounds.

Following a 2017 lawsuit over whether the state Fish and Wildlife department was doing enough to prevent marine life entanglements, it has worked the last three years with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard, a host of private research groups and the California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group to monitor the California coastline for whales and turtles, delaying the start of the recreational and commercial Dungeness crab fishing seasons in California if spotters in planes and on boats report too many. The most coveted fishing spots are along the continental shelf off the central coast.

For the third year in a row, the commercial fishing fleet had to wait to drop crab pots until the end of the year, though fishing had started much earlier off states to the north. Recreational crabbing remains closed.

Prior to the new regulations, crab fishing started in mid-November. Traditionally, Thanksgiving, Christmas and the new year rank among the most popular times for Dungeness crab consumption in Southern California. Officials with the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations said since the restrictions have been in place, the industry has dropped from 450 active vessels and has lost tens of millions of dollars.

Leading up to this year’s season, Charlton Bonham, Fish and Wildlife’s director, reviewed data showing hundreds of whales still swimming in October off San Francisco up to the Oregon border.

Surveys in November and early December still found dozens of humpbacks near the San Francisco area and six more were found in the most southern zones near Los Angeles.

Officials decided this month that commercial fishermen could start fishing off the central coast and southern zones starting Dec. 31, but could use only half their gear. By reducing the number of crab pots and connected lines in the water, officials say the overall entanglement risk is lessened while still allowing the fishery to open. This is the first time this management approach has been tried in California.

“The reality is, it’s very hard for fishermen to make a living now because we lost our holiday market,” said Glen Spain, acting executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “Now we need support from the community. Our job is delivering high-quality seafood to the American dinner table within the limits of sustainability and within limits of the regulations.”

In 2016, a warm blob of water in the ocean brought whales closer than ever to West Coast shores, leading to a record number of entanglements. In 2021, NOAA reported that entanglements were trending down, but still higher than before that event. There were 27 entangled whales reported off the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington, or off the coast of other countries butwrapped in U.S. commercial fishing gear. The majority were humpbacks.

While 2022 numbers are being finalized, 16 humpbacks were spotted entangled in gear.

Experts such as Geoff Schester, a senior scientist with Oceana who is also a member of the crab gear working group as a conservative representative, said he believes the wildlife agency’s actions in delaying the season and limiting the amount of gear has saved whale lives, but said there is more work to do, such as advocating for stricter regulations in Oregon and Washington.

“Most of the entanglements are seen off California, but I think the problem is probably equally shared,” Schester said. He did point out all three states have made improvements in getting the fishing boats to mark gear so the source of entanglements can be tracked. “It’s a West Coast-wide problem. You’ve got to deal with this in a consistent approach, rather than California bearing the brunt.”

Related links

Back-to-back humpback whales freed from tangled lines off Southern California
Dungeness crab fishing delayed by humpback whales hanging out, could affect holiday tables
Environmental group sues state Fish and Wildlife over record number of whale entanglements
Tangled in trouble: Record number of ensnared whales may be due to warmer waters, experts say
Jon Mansur remembered as sportfishing pioneer, founder of the popular Jon’s Fish Market

Some fishermen have started testing an alternative to the gear that drops horizontal lines from the surface with crab pots that sink to the ocean floor. Manufactured in San Diego, the “pop up” gear stores the line and the buoy with the trap on the sea floor until fishermen are ready to retrieve it, eliminating the lines floating in the water that can wrap around whales and other sea life. According to NOAA, roughly 75% of reported whale entanglements are fatal as whales can drag the heavy fishing gear for months, hindering their ability to dive and feed.

The gear is viable for crabbers, Schester said, because it would reduce the economic impacts of the fishery closures and provide customers with confidence their crab is “whale safe.”

Despite the impact on her business, Mansur-O’Keefe said she is happy California’s wildlife officials are looking out for the welfare of the whales and turtles. Still, she said she believes the regulations need balance and should consider the impact on the families who live off the sea.

“It’s great to have eyes on the fishery and rule out people who are doing it the wrong way,” she said. “There are so many un-monitored areas and I’m grateful California has eyes on it, but at the same time, you can’t just stop fishing. You’re affecting thousands of livelihoods.”

Now, with the California boats in the water, Mansur-O’Keefe said she can’t wait to get their fresh catches.

“We’ll call people who ask for them and they’ll go fast because it’s been really sparse,” she said.

And she’ll make sure to have between 20 and 50 pounds of crab available in the next few months.

“Everyone needs to be involved; the consumers should be involved, too,” she said. “We’re going to retrain them on the way they’re eating crab.”

Related Articles

Environment |

Can West Coast waves help power state energy grids?

Share the Post:

Related Posts