By Livia Albeck-Ripka
New York Times
On a foggy morning in early November, Dan Kammerer hauled a crab trap onto a fishing boat about 3 miles off the coast of Northern California and assessed his catch: 10 or so Dungeness crabs, spindly red legs akimbo.
“I’ll pick three of these,” Kammerer, 79, said as he tossed some of the smallest crustaceans back into the ocean. “Will I pick three winners? I don’t know.”
Kammerer, a retired fisherman, is playing a small role in aiding California’s crab fishing industry, which faces an uncertain future as it grapples with an ever-shortening season.
On that day, he was selecting crabs to be tested for domoic acid, a neurotoxin that, when found in the seafood, can halt the opening of the commercial fishing season. The toxin is not the only unwanted presence: In the past few years, a handful of migrating whales have been tangled in crab traps.
Now, the season cannot open until a majority of the whales are gone.
“We’ve gone from a seven-month-long crab season to one that is going to be three months, at best,” said Ben Platt, president of the California Coast Crab Association, which advocates for the fishery.
He and some other fishermen say that it is not just their way of life at risk but also potentially the future of California’s crab fishery, one of the state’s most valuable.
If the regulations keep tightening, Platt said, “there’s a good chance that the Dungeness fishing industry won’t survive.”
The curtailed season is the outcome of a bitter conflict between fishermen and environmentalists, who have long campaigned to protect California’s marine life from becoming entangled in fishing gear. In 2019, they reached a settlement with the state government and a group of fishermen to ensure that a region’s crabbing season could begin only once it had been declared mostly free of threatened and endangered whales.
It is also a case study in whether the country’s major fisheries can adapt to climate change: Rising ocean temperatures, scientists say, may have helped encourage the whales into crab territory. Warming waters can also increase the toxic algae blooms that can end up poisoning the shellfish.
“It all trickles down,” Jarrod Santora, a marine biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said of the knockoff effects of climate change on the fishing community.
The humpback whale population, historically threatened by hunting, he added, has also recovered significantly.
Kammerer said, “When there’s too many of them, who wins the battle? The whales or the fishermen?”
This year, the season is still not open in some parts of the state, including the Bay Area. For many, crab will not be on the Thanksgiving menu. Other fishermen worry they will lose out on the Christmas market as well.
“If we don’t have the product, we’re going to lose our income,” said Tony Anello, 73, a fisherman and the owner of Spud Point Crab Company, a restaurant in Bodega Bay.
Anello, who has been fishing for more than five decades, said he had watched his town morph increasingly into a tourist destination as many fishermen moved on.
“The boats are dwindling away,” he said.
For younger fishermen, breaking into the crab fishery can seem nearly impossible.
“I tried to get this job for 10 years,” said Liam Brayton, 37, who on a recent Thursday was repairing crab traps in a yard opposite the Spud Point Marina in Bodega Bay. But now, he said, “I don’t see much of a future.”
In Kammerer’s case, the tough regulations were part of what led him to retire and sell his boat four years ago. But the ocean continues to lure him back, he said, and so he occasionally works as a deckhand to Dick Ogg, 68, a friend and fellow crab fisherman.
That day, the pair cruised through cerulean waters, launching the traps and hauling them back with an air of optimism despite their acknowledgment that the future of the fishery was uncertain.
“This is our living. This is what we do every day. We don’t want that to go away; we want to take care of this environment,” Ogg said. “I can’t imagine a life without fishing. I’m a water person.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.