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California’s Dungeness Crab Season Cut Short to Protect Whales

The season’s early close has nothing to do with the coronavirus, but the crisis means crabbers will be even harder hit

California’s Dungeness Crab Seasons Starts Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has announced it will be shutting down the Dungeness crabbing season on the Northern and Central Coasts on May 15, Director Charlton Bonham said via declaration this week. The early closure is a precaution to protect humpback whales from getting tangled in fishing gear, and has nothing to do with the coronavirus pandemic — if anything, the question is how climate change might be changing whale migration patterns. But as commercial crabbers are already suffering in the crisis, many say that the early end to the season will be financially devastating.

The local Dungeness crab season has been delayed, cut short, or cancelled for at least the last five years, an alarming trend for one of our most beloved San Francisco dishes. In 2015, the entire season was canceled, when a warm blob of water caused an algae bloom. That bloom led to a buildup of domoic acid in the crabs, which can result in anything from nausea to death for those who eat them. Now there’s testing for domoic acid every year, to make sure it’s safe to open the season — but with changes to whale migration patterns, many which bring them closer to shore, some shortened seasons have gotten even shorter.

Historically, the local crabbing season runs from mid November through June. This season, the opening was delayed until December 16, 2019, completely missing Thanksgiving, when crab usually stars on menus across the Bay Area. This season’s closing is coming a month early, amuch to the dismay of local fishermen.

Prior to the decision, the California Coast Crab Association (CCCA) asked its members to contact Bonham and to urge him to keep the season open. “We are happy to report there have been zero confirmed entanglements with our gear this season,” they said as of April 11, “and zero with unconfirmed gear type, too.”

“The continued economic contribution to our fleet and coastal communities is too important during this pandemic,” the CCCA wrote, “when many people are out of work wondering how they will pay their rent and feed their families. Dungeness crab is a clean, high quality protein food source and the commercial fishing is a model of social distancing.”

Despite these arguments — and the arguments of Ben Platt, the head of the CCCA, who said in a statement to media that “the risk of crab fishing gear harming endangered whales is statistically insignificant” — the decision has been made. So for the next two weeks, Dungeness crab lovers in the city, catch those last few crabs while you can. Scrabbling through the dungeness crab heat map, at least Scoma’s, Tadich Grill, Hook Fish, and a few others are still open for takeout or delivery, for one last feast at home.