Crab season to be cut short in California to protect whales and turtles

The crabbing season in 2020 and 2021 will also be shuttered early in places where high concentrations of whales feed.

Whales and sea turtles off the coast of California will have less time to contend with possible entanglements in crab fishing gear in 2019, after a one-and-a-half-year lawsuit settlement shortened the Dungeness crab season by three months in late March.

The Tucson, Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity sued the California Department of Fish and Game in 2017. The center argued that the agency’s authorization of the commercial fishery for Dungeness crab wasn’t in line with the United States’ Endangered Species Act because the equipment used in the fishery had led to a rise in the “illegal take” of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) and leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea). Humpbacks are considered endangered under the federal law in parts of their range; blue whales and leatherbacks are listed as endangered throughout their entire ranges.

Twenty-two whales became entangled in crabbing gear in 2016 off the West Coast of the U.S., compared with 11 in 2015, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Center for Biological Diversity negotiated the settlement with the state’s wildlife department, as well as the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, which intervened in the lawsuit.

“This is great news for whales and sea turtles fighting extinction off California’s coast,” Kristen Monsell, a Center for Biological Diversity attorney, said in a statement. “The settlement will reduce serious threats from crab gear to these beautiful and highly endangered animals. This agreement is a turning point that gets us closer to zero entanglements and a healthy ocean.”

The lines that run between surface buoys and crab pots on the seafloor can ensnare whales and other sea life, causing infections, preventing them from feeding and, in the most serious cases, leading to drowning.

In addition to the closure of the crab fishery on April 15, 2019, the 2020 and 2021 seasons will end on April 1 in each of those years in places where lots of whales feed in the spring, like Monterey Bay. If observers spot high concentrations of whales elsewhere, the agreement allows them to close the season earlier.

Boats using “rope-less” gear won’t be held to those closure dates, though Noah Oppenheim, executive director of Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, told the San Francisco Chronicle that this new technology is “extraordinarily expensive.”

Under the terms of the settlement — which still must be approved by the courts — the fish and wildlife department also must put regulations in place that require crab fishers to pull their lines and pots from the water instead of abandoning them to become floating hazards for marine life.

Oppenheim said the restrictions will make a difficult way of life even tougher.

“The past several years have been extraordinarily challenging for fishing families, and the actions we’re taking here are no exception,” he said in the statement. “But in the end, we’re going to emerge together with a resilient, prosperous, and protective fishery that will continue to feed California and the nation.”

“This settlement represents the path back to normality for California’s crab fishery with built-in protections for whales and crab fishing operations under the Endangered Species Act,” Oppenheim added.

“As I’ve said many times, no one wants whale entanglements to happen,” Charlton H. Bonham, director of California Fish and Wildlife, said in the statement. “This agreement represents hours of intense negotiation to help ensure [entanglements] don’t happen and [to] support the resiliency of the crab fishery in the long-run.”

Banner image of a humpback whale mother and calf courtesy of NOAA (Public domain).

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