A recent aerial survey over the Dungeness Crab Fishing Range above and below San Francisco saw a large congregation of humpbacks, meaning this year’s fishing season kicked off in the most plentiful section of the ocean.
“We saw 48 whales with three and four animal pods in a single flight,” said Ryan Bartling, a senior environmental scientist at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Whale Safe Fisheries Department. “We saw that many times.”
That means the Thanksgiving table may be without new options for the traditional holiday treat for many, though fisheries officials hope the Christmas market won’t be lost. But it also means that lesser whales, with their often 8-foot-long pectoral fins, will probably become entangled in the thick ropes attached to the heavy commercial Dungeness crab nets.
Just a few days earlier, a second plane from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration went the same fishing distance of 700 miles and still saw whales. The flights were launched a year ago to check for humpbacks, blue whales and Pacific leatherback turtles living in the fishing range. There were reports of more and more animals being caught, some dying, so now if enough animals are seen, the season is delayed.
At least 11 humpbacks have been trapped in a variety of fishing gear off the West Coast so far this year, according to federal officials.
The fishing season for Dungeness crabs is from November 15 to June 30, although crabs are usually most abundant in the first two months. This is the third time the season has been delayed by three years.
About 450 vessels operate in six regulated commercial fishing areas between Point Conception and the Oregon border. Two areas in the northernmost section and two other areas around Morro Bay have opened for the season. But the area with the highest concentration of shipwrecks – also the more productive fishing grounds – surrounds San Francisco and remains closed.
Last year, wildlife agency employees found the whale hanging by early December. The fishermen did not set their nets till January.
Wildlife agency director Charlton Bonham is expected to decide on Monday, November 22, what will happen over the next two weeks.
Mike Conroy, president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, said he was not surprised by the delay, but was disappointed it would affect the Thanksgiving market, usually extremely profitable for fishermen.
“I hope we can save the Christmas market,” he said. “But based on what we heard today (Wednesday, November 17th) there are still a lot of whales. I don’t see anything happening before December 15th.
“If people get the product by December 19 or 20, it could lead to some savings in the market,” he said.
Conroy, of Long Beach, said he also hopes that at some point there are ways to identify the whales to make sure the whales aren’t being counted 10 times. Right now, ocean conditions near San Francisco are such, he said, that whales that have no reason to migrate to breeding grounds, such as juveniles, have reason to hang out.
“The water is cold, but there’s a lot of food around,” he said.
Humpbacks visit the breeding grounds of Mexico and Central America annually. John Calambokidis, a biologist at Cascadia Research, has now identified a few humpbacks seen in northern California in Mexico’s waters, but many are still off the Central Coast.
“It’s what we expected,” Bartling said of a whale recently seen in Farallon Bay near San Francisco. “We hope they go back to their breeding grounds. We expect to see a marked improvement from the next flight.”
Once those whales begin to move south, they are not expected to close already open ranges for crab season, as marine mammals take “straight shots” along the coast, Experts said. And, there are fewer fishing opportunities due to the topography of the ocean.
Wildlife officials will survey the fishing chain around San Francisco after Thanksgiving, but getting accurate data will require cooperation from the weather. Surveys are also done by boat.
“It will depend on the wind, the surface of the sea; We need good scenery,” Bartling said. “At this time of year, there’s usually one good day in 10 days.”
Officials including the Center for Biological Diversity, who sued the wildlife agency in 2017 after the total number of whale entanglements from all fishing industries broke records for three straight years, say the new risk assessment system could help Whales, entangled with numbers, appeared to be falling.
Kristen Monsell, legal director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s oceans program, calls the rules “a step in the right direction” but advocates for more.
“It’s good to see California finally taking whale entanglements seriously,” he said, adding that “we need to transition to ropeless fishing gear.”
Bartling agreed that the new rules are making a difference, but said other factors such as greater awareness among fishermen and changes made with their gear, such as loosening the rope and tying fewer knots, are also helping. Huh.
“I think more people are paying attention,” he said. “We’re not at zero. I think it’s going to be hard to get there. Whales are curious, but that’s not to say it won’t happen.”