Californians hoping for a delicious Dungeness crab Christmas dinner may be disappointed again this winter.

Poor crab meat quality and humpback whale entanglements prompted the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to delay the 2022-2023 commercial Dungeness crab fishing season until at least mid-December.

The recreational season is also currently on hold for all waters south of Point Arena in Mendocino County. Catching crabs with traps is not permitted south of the Sonoma/Mendocino county line, however, hoop nets and crab snares are permitted.

Commercial fishermen could finally get a green light on Dec. 16 for opening day, but they are waiting on word from the Department of Fish and Wildlife. The CDFW’s next assessment examining whale population numbers will take place on Wednesday.

CDFW Director Charlton Bonham said, “Ultimately, we must rely on the best available science and make management decisions based on the Risk Assessment Mitigation Program regulations. CDFW remains committed to providing fishing opportunity when risk of entanglement is low, which is consistent with our management approach since implementation of RAMP. We appreciate the discussions with the California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group regarding risk of entanglement.”

State wildlife officials rely on survey flights to count whales in the crab fishing zones.

A worker moves a bin of Dungeness crab after it was offloaded from a fishing vessel on November 17, 2010 in San Francisco. (Photo by Justin Sullivan / Getty Images / File)

Moss Landing fisherman Tommy Hart said a lot has changed over the past 40 years. “I’ve been fishing crabs commercially since 1982. When I first started, there was no limited entry. You could just buy the gear and go fishing. That was before there were even permits.”

CDFW managed the crabbing season well, he said, “until the whale issue came up.” Humpback whale populations are rebounding. But with more whales in the ocean, more entanglements are happening as well, he said. “In California, there’s not one politician who is going to make amendments to the Marine Protection Act if he wants to be re-elected. We’re kinda’ getting screwed,” Hart told KRON4.

Opening day for California’s commercial crab season used to fall on Nov. 15. Demand for crab is high around Thanksgiving and Christmas. “We already lost Thanksgiving. Because the season is so short, I’m making half as much money as I used to,” Hart said.

This humpback whale was entangled by a crab pot off Northern California’s coast. A member of the Whale Entanglement Team freed the whale as it continued swimming all the way to Santa Barbara. (Photo courtesy of NOAA / R. BERGER, MMHSRP PERMIT 932-1489)

California’s crab fishing regulations are enforced by zones.

Zone 1 and 2 encompasses Northern California’s coast. Zones 3 includes the San Francisco Bay and Zone 4 contains the Monterey Bay, and Zone 5 covers Morro Bay. Zone 6 covers the southern-most stretch of coastline, from Point Conception to the Mexico border.

Currently, the only way to catch a crab legally with a trap is to do so recreationally in Zones 1 or 2, which includes Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte counties.

In Zones 1 and 2, crab season was delayed in November due to poor crab meat quality. The adult male crabs were too skinny. State wildlife officials wrote, “CDFW delayed the northern California commercial Dungeness crab season due to poor crab meat quality test results for Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte counties (Fishing Zones 1 and 2). The commercial Dungeness crab fishery in this area is delayed until 12:01 a.m. on Friday, Dec. 16, 2022 pending another round of meat quality testing. If results indicate good quality, the fishery will open.”

(Map courtesy CDFW)

The November delay in Zones 3-6 was ordered to protect humpback whales. Crab pot fishing gear poses grave risks to humpbacks.

The number of whales seen entangled in fishing gear has increased “dramatically” over the past decade, wildlife officials said. The Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission wrote, “The commercial Dungeness crab fishery is the largest fixed gear fishery on the West Coast, deploying up to 450,000 pots annually, with each pot attached with a line to the surface.”

About two dozen whales each year are entangled by fishing equipment along California’s coast, according to statistics from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

California’s 2021-2022 crab season was cut off early in March in the wake of two humpback whale entanglements. The season’s traditional closure is June 30. Humpback whales are federally protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Explaining the science behind the increase in entanglements is also more complicated than keeping a closer eye on fishing lines, according to the researchers, nonprofits and fishermen watching the water. Humpbacks are not following their usual migration paths, and spending more time in crab fishing zones.

“If the world continues to get warmer, things are going to shift,” said Francisco Chavez, senior scientist and biological oceanographer with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. “The species that are in Monterey Bay will be in Oregon, and the species that are in Point Conception will be in Monterey Bay.”

That’s bad news for crab fishermen, because Dungeness crab populations drop off steeply once you sail south of the Monterey Bay.