Concerns over endangered whales could delay commercial crab season

A decision is coming soon as to whether crabs will be in markets in time for the Thanksgiving holiday.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife will decide next week whether the crab season will start on time: November 15.

At Pier 45 in San Francisco's Fishermen's Wharf, crab traps are lined up, ready to go.

Fishermen say a delay will be another blow in what has been a difficult year.

"Trying to get this season up and rolling," says John Barnett as he prepares his boat for the upcoming season. "Thanksgiving, Christmas, the holidays, crabs. We open before any other spot in the state."

But there may be a catch to this season: a possible delay due to concerns about endangered whales becoming entangled in crab fishing gear.

There are new rules that go into effect Sunday, November 1.

They allow the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to close or limit fishing in areas where whales and sea turtles may be harmed.

"Their rules are a good first step," Steve Jones with the Center for Biological Diversity. 

He says the new rules came when the environmental nonprofit filed a lawsuit because of the high number of whales being entangled: a peak of 66 in 2016.

"Whales are essential to healthy oceans. They spread nutrients around the ocean. They sequester carbon and offset climate change," says Jones. 

Ryan Bartling is senior environmental scientist with the state.  He says analysis is now being done with aerial surveys he did this week to see where the whales are. He says the information will help determine whether the season needs to be delayed

"Trying to find the right balance of protecting species and minimizing impact on fishermen," says Bartling. 

In May, a devastating fire at Pier 45 destroyed a shed where 31 fishermen stored their gear.

Barnett estimates the loss of his equipment to be $300,000.

He says he could only afford to buy a fraction of the crab traps he had and he hasn't been able to fully equip his boat. 

"If it's delayed for a long time, there's no income. We need income to pay for all these expenses we've incurred," says Barnett, "If they don't open on time, there's a good reason. We don't want to tangle the whale."  

The state is expected to make a decision by the middle of next week.

But it's not all or nothing.

The crab season may start on time, but crab fishing may be prohibited in certain areas.