The decision likely will make the biggest dent in the highly anticipated commercial season for Dungeness crab, which was scheduled to start in the bay Thursday but has now been postponed for at least 2Ѕ weeks amid health concerns.
"It will set us back quite a bit," said Art Romine, 38, a crabber who planned to return home to Newport, Oregon, after hearing about the suspension Tuesday.
"We can't be bringing in crabs that are possibly toxic," he said. "That wouldn't be good for the market at all. People don't want to buy toxic food."
Some local fishermen were hired by the Port of San Francisco to help with the oil cleanup effort for $3,000 (Ђ2,040) a day, less than a quarter of what they could make catching crabs. "They know the waters better than anyone," port spokeswoman Renee Dunn told the San Francisco Chronicle.
The 58,000-gallon spill (219,547-liter) occurred when a cargo ship's hull was sliced open by a collision with the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in heavy fog last week.
The pilot of the ship said he immediately reported the presence of oil in the water, but cleanup crews did not arrive for nearly 90 minutes. A Coast Guard log places a skimming vessel at the scene in 80 minutes.
Coast Guard officials defended their response as "by the book," but concede mistakes in their communication with the public. Initial reports set the spill at just 140 gallons (530 liters); the Coast Guard waited hours after learning it was much larger before notifying local officials.
Federal prosecutors are conducting a criminal probe and have interviewed members of the crew. The harbor pilot who was guiding the ship through the bay toward open water has not been subpoenaed in that investigation, his lawyer said.
A day after the spill, the governor praised the Coast Guard for taking "immediate action." But speaking Tuesday, Schwarzenegger seemed to change course.
The oil spill was the result of "unbelievable human failure," he said. "Then on top of it, it takes that long to react to the oil spill so by the time the next day comes around, the oil is all over the bay."
Later, after a briefing by Coast Guard officials, Schwarzenegger sidestepped questions about whether he was satisfied with the agency's response.
"I'm not an investigator," he said.
He did pledge a thorough investigation "to see also if we as a state can do more in order to prevent those kind of accidents."
"Believe me, we will ask the tough questions that need to be asked," Schwarzenegger said.
The start of the commercial crab season in the area was postponed until Dec. 1, or until state health and wildlife officials deem it safe to reopen the fisheries.
Crab fishermen voted Saturday to ask the governor for the postponement because of concerns that crabs could be contaminated by oil in the ocean and bay water used to keep the crustaceans alive on boats.
Officials say it is the first fishing ban stemming from an oil spill in California. There is no evidence that seafood has been affected by the spill, but officials wanted to make public's safety a priority, said Steve Edinger, assistant chief of the Department of Fish and Game.
The suspension will be an economic hardship for many fishermen, especially crabbers from Oregon, Washington and California's distant North Coast. The Bay Area crab fishery attracts out-of-town fishermen because it opens two weeks earlier than larger fisheries farther north.