Dungeness Crab Season Begins Despite Health Worries

Thursday, November 15th 2007, 8:00 am
By: News On 6

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ The Dungeness crab season opened as scheduled Thursday amid health concerns by anglers who wanted all fishing banned as cleanup continues on last week's oil spill.

Despite the request to suspend all commercial and sport fishing for at least 2 1/2 weeks, the state announced Wednesday that only the San Francisco Bay and three miles of Pacific coast, from Point Reyes to San Mateo County, would be closed.

The closure does not affect most of the Dungeness crab fishery because the delicacy is frequently caught more than three miles offshore, though fishermen fear even one contaminated crustacean could hurt the entire market.

``This is an absolute disaster,'' said Larry Collins, vice president of the San Francisco Crab Boat Owners Association. ``We're all stunned. It's absolutely irresponsible.''

Miles of beaches remain closed after the freighter Cosco Busan struck the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in heavy fog on Nov. 7, spilling 58,000 gallons of oil into the bay.

The investigation into the cause of the crash hit a snag when Chinese crew members of the Hong Kong-based cargo ship refused to speak with federal investigators. Some crew members had previously spoken to the Coast Guard, but new criminal and civil investigations have apparently led the crew to hire lawyers and refuse interviews, said National Transportation Safety Board member Debbie Hersman.

The NTSB could subpoena the crew members.

Federal prosecutors are conducting a criminal probe into the spill, and the governor also has promised an investigation. Officials have ruled out mechanical error and are focusing on the actions of the pilot and crew.

The Coast Guard revealed Wednesday that some drug and alcohol tests taken by crew members were conducted outside the legal time limits. Federal law requires all crew members to be tested for alcohol within two hours of an incident and for drugs within 32 hours.

Capt. John Cota, who was guiding the ship, was tested within the legal time frames for drugs and alcohol, and tested negative, Rear Adm. Craig Bone said.

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard replaced the commander overseeing the response to the spill.

At a Senate hearing in Washington, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen said Capt. Paul Gugg will assume oversight of the response from Capt. William Uberti, who will remain the Coast Guard commander for the bay region.

``Given the concerns ... about what may or may not have happened, we thought it was best at this time to bring in a new incident commander for this particular response,'' Allen said.

The Coast Guard has been criticized for a lapse of several hours between when officials knew the spill was 58,000 gallons _ not 140 gallons as initially reported _ and when that information was made public.

Allen told lawmakers the Coast Guard will review its own response, including whether its emergency plan for the bay is adequate. The process will include the city of San Francisco, the state of California and others.

Two state lawmakers said Wednesday they had been told by workers from one of the three companies hired by the ship's owners for the cleanup that there were not enough trained responders in the area when the accident happened, which may have allowed the slick to spread.

The slick continued to worry crabbers as they prepared to lay out their traps.

Many of the fishermen who requested the fishing ban will harvest anyway because they worry that if they wait, their competitors will haul away all the crab, said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Association.

Fishermen will not be able to unload crabs in San Francisco, but they can still deliver their catch to buyers in Half Moon Bay or Bodega Bay, officials said.

Steve Martarano, a spokesman for the state Department of Fish and Game, said the department consulted with all sectors of the fishing industry before deciding which areas should be closed.

``All of us were concerned about the human health issue,'' Martarano said. ``There was a wide range of opinion, and we took everything into consideration.''