and Scott Lindlaw





SAN FRANCISCO &

The region's highly anticipated Dungeness crab season is officially in full swing, but local fishermen aren't going anywhere near the catch.




Crabbers, outraged by the state's decision to leave open most of the Central California crab fishery following an oil spill last week, say they won't take their boats out until the slick is cleaned up and public confidence restored. Seafood buyers say they're concerned about potential liability if someone becomes ill from eating an oil-tainted crustacean.




"It just takes one crab and you'll have a problem," said Max Boland, director of sales at Alber Seafoods. "It's a lawsuit waiting to happen."




Local crabbers had asked the governor to delay the opening of the entire commercial crab fishery, but the state announced Wednesday that only the San Francisco Bay and waters within three miles of the coastline, from San Mateo County to Point Reyes, would be closed. Dungeness crab, a delicacy, is usually caught more than three miles offshore.




"It's extremely disappointing and I think potentially reckless," said Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco. "I don't want to be alarmist, but we don't know for certain that this is safe."




The state said it consulted with all sectors of the fishing industry before deciding which areas should be closed and determined fishing outside the closure zones was safe.




About 58,000 gallons of thick bunker fuel poured into the bay on Nov. 7, when a container ship sideswiped the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Miles of coastline have been fouled and hundreds of oil coated birds have died. Many beaches remain closed.




Federal prosecutors are conducting a criminal probe into the spill, and the governor also has launched an investigation. The first lawsuit was filed Thursday &

by an Oregon crab boat operator who is suing the shipping company and others for economic losses that it says total more than $100 million.




The National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday it's looking into the response of the Coast Guard's Vessel Traffic Service, which advises ships in the bay. The VTS monitored the Cosco Busan as it approached the bridge but chose to go silent for about two minutes before the collision.




When the vessel departed from its stated course and began traveling parallel to the bridge the morning of the collision, the VTS, staffed by four "watch standers," radioed to ask its intentions, NTSB member Debbie Hersman said.




The pilot, Capt. John Cota, responded that he knew where he was going and he was turning the ship. At that point, the watch standers intentionally went silent during "what they perceived as a critical maneuver," Hersman said.




"They were watching very closely," Hersman said. "I think that they all recognized and were concerned about the vessel's position and whether or not it was going to safely transit through" the opening between two bridge towers.




It was about two minutes between the VTS's inquiry and the pilot's radioed report that he had struck the bridge tower fender. Unlike an air-traffic control tower, the VTS cannot order vessels to change course, Hersman said.




She would not say whether the VTS should have advised the pilot that the ship was in danger. "We are looking at what (VTS's) guidance is, what their qualifications are and what the standards for communication are &

whether or not there are any obligations beyond advisory information," she said.




On Friday, a Coast Guard spokesman said it wasn't the agency's role to put the ship on a different court.




Capt. Jim McPherson said the VTS's role in directing ships is purely advisory.




The Coast Guard's response also 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.




Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Thursday his probe will focus on notification, environmental damage and cleanup as well as civil and criminal liability. Schwarzenegger also is asking state lawmakers to study possible policy changes to prevent future spills.