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Dungeness Crab Season Delayed Again, SF Crabbers Miss Holiday Haul

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A person in a black beanie stands on the prow of a boat.
Shawn Chen Flading stands on the bow of his boat near Pier 45 in San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood on Dec. 12, 2023. He is awaiting an announcement of the official start of California’s Dungeness crab season, which has been delayed due to the risk of humpback whales and endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtles being caught in fishing equipment. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

For decades, fishers have earned a living selling Dungeness crab out of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. But many, like Shawn Chen Flading, have struggled over the last five years as the state has consecutively delayed the commercial season.

“Every delay is difficult. Right now, I have zero income as a fisherman,” Flading said. He told KQED that he’s been working side jobs to financially stay afloat.

The season, which has historically started on Nov. 15, is delayed until at least New Year’s Day to protect migrating humpback whales. Crabbers like Flading hope to catch the tail end of the holidays to recoup what they’ve lost.

This is also primetime for crab sales as many San Franciscans prepare festive meals that feature the crustacean as opposed to turkey or ham.

“It’s something people like to splurge on to create a feast,” Flading said. “But with the delay, we’ve lost all the holiday markets.”


Last year, Dungeness crab sales topped $20 million in California. The state also exports Dungeness crab to neighboring states and abroad (last year, the state sold $4 million worth of Dungeness crab to China). But this season’s delay has hampered the export market, too.

“Instead of Washington importing California crabs, they’re selling crabs to California,” said John Barnett, president of the San Francisco Crab Boat Owners Association.

Large red crabs sit in ice.
Crab sits in a display case at The Crab Station in Fisherman’s Wharf San Francisco. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Imported crabs from Washington currently sold on the Wharf are about twice as expensive as local ones — up to $27 per pound.

“Everyone just looks at the price, and then they just leave,” said Timothy But, who works at the Crab Station, a restaurant on the Wharf.

Don MacFarlane, owner of Sabella and La Torre, a 96-year-old seafood restaurant on the Wharf, said his business also relies on the holidays to make extra cash by selling crab.

“It’s just a ripple effect,” he added.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife delayed the season in recent years due to the presence of humpback whales off California waters.

Commercial crab traps pose a threat to humpback whales, blue whales, and leatherback sea turtles — all animals listed under the Endangered Species Act. Commercial Crab fishing gear, which consists of a trap that rests on the ocean floor and is connected by a line that leads to a buoy, can entangle these animals and cause injury or death.

A pile of crab pots are seen stacked up beside a large building.
Empty crab pots sit outside of Flannery Seafood on Pier 45 in San Francisco. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

During the 2015–16 season, a noted rise in entanglements of mostly humpback whales prompted the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity to sue the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.

The lawsuit alleged that the organizations failed to prevent the animals from becoming entangled. The parties eventually settled in 2019.

Now, the department must delay the season if the animals are found swimming off the coast in high enough numbers or if too many animals get entangled in fishing gear over a set period.

In the five years since the settlement agreement was enacted, the start of every commercial Dungeness Crab season in the state has been delayed.

More Stories on Dungeness Crab

Migrating humpback whales are now starting their southward journey later in the year and coming closer to shore than before. In previous decades, they headed south by the start of the crab season, but climate change is affecting the timing of that migration, according to Jordan Traverso, deputy director of communications, education and outreach for the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Traverso said the spike in entanglements seen in 2015 and 2016 was, in part, caused by abnormally warm waters bringing whales closer to shore.

“There’s a number of things going on that are making it so that our seasons don’t really match up with the calendar year that they have been expected to for a really long time,” Traverso said. “Nov. 15 is a lot warmer than it has been. There’s different food sources in the ocean than we were normally expecting.”

Estimates reported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show humpback whale populations have steadily increased in recent decades, recovering from when they were nearly hunted to extinction by the commercial whaling industry in the 19th and 20th centuries.

A boat docked in a harbor is seen through a window.
A view of Fisherman’s Wharf from Shawn Chen Flading’s boat near Pier 45 in San Francisco. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

More whales, combined with their changing migration patterns, have crabbers worried that a crab season that opens in time for the holidays is now a thing of the past.

“The whales are doing fantastic. It’s the commercial fishermen that are really becoming extinct,” Flading said.

Flading is also a member of the California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group, a group of fishermen, environmentalists, scientists, and state officials that guides the state on how to best prevent whale entanglements. That includes changing crabbing practices, like keeping lines taut, retrieving gear promptly, and avoiding areas where whales are spotted.

“We as a commercial fleet feel very comfortable doing our best practices to limit the interactions and not have any kind of bad effect on the growing population,” Flading said.

To change this, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife could submit a conservation plan, called an Incidental Take Permit, to the federal government. This permit would allow for a small number of humpbacks to be unintentionally killed by commercial crabbing — as long as the state can show it would have a negligible impact on the overall whale population.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife has been working on an application but has not yet submitted it.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife Spokesperson Traverso told KQED in an email that the department expects the conservation plan to resemble the current management plan responsible for the delays.

Some crabbers are hopeful that as Humpback populations continue to increase, the regulations will no longer be necessary. In the meantime, crabbers like Flading want to get back out on the water and pursue their passion.

“I love the adventure of it, the freedom of it, it’s something I love to do,” he said. “And now, trying to make a living out of it, it’s been really rough.”

A preliminary assessment and management recommendation by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife on Friday recommended that the commercial crab season open on Jan. 5, north of Sonoma County, with a 50% reduction in the amount of traps crabbers can use. From Sonoma County south to the border with Mexico, the Department recommends delaying the season further, citing the ongoing presence of humpback whales.


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