The accessibility of fresh Dungeness crab will soar in the new year as the long-delayed commercial crabbing season finally kicks off on Dec. 31.
Bay Area residents craving one of the region’s most iconic dishes will soon be able to widely purchase the tasty crustacean after a drought of product throughout the holiday season.
In San Francisco, commercial crabbers are now allowed to sell live crab off the boat in Fisherman’s Wharf after a pilot program was made permanent, creating another market for sale.
This is the fourth year in a row the season’s traditional Nov. 15 start date has been postponed. Locals hoping to nab some crab for Thanksgiving or Christmas were required to catch it themselves, although use of crab traps by sport fishermen is prohibited.
Commercial Dungeness crab seasons up and down the West Coast have been delayed for weeks due to concerns about wildlife entanglements and biological testing showing low meat yields and elevated levels domoic acid.
But even with the start of the season, there are new challenges, as crabbers operating below the Sonoma/Mendocino county line are required to reduce the traps they are putting out by half to avoid entanglement issues with wildlife.
The delays to the season stem from a 2017 lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity after a record 71 reported whale entanglements along the West Coast during the 2016 season, about a third of which were caused by Dungeness crabbing equipment.
The annual migration of humpback whales takes the sea animals north from Mexico into areas along the California coast where they feed on anchovies, sardines and krill before returning south.
California Department of Fish and Wildlife officials say that whales congregating in waters near Point Reyes and the Farallon Islands continue to be a concern, and the department has issued an advisory on best practices to help crabbers avoid entanglements.
“Far too many humpback whales have been entangled in recent years, and we can’t afford any more entanglements,” said Geoff Shester, a senior scientist at ocean conservation organization Oceana.
Wildlife advocacy organizations have pushed federal regulators to require ropeless fishing gear with an acoustic release trigger to pull traps from the water, but crabbers say the technology is ineffective and too expensive to use commercially.
John Barnett, a longtime crabber and the president of the San Francisco Crab Boat Owners Association, said no “real normal” has been established because whale migration patterns differ every year.
Shifting migration patterns have been linked to climate change and other environmental factors, like ocean acidification—problems that are likely to impact future crabbing seasons.
“What we’ve observed is that whales are here longer and that they are increasing in number, so it doesn’t seem to bode well for future delays,” Barnett said.