In what could become a global model to protect whales and sea turtles from becoming entangled in fishing gear, three groups on Tuesday, March 26, announced a settlement agreement that will close California Dungeness crab fishing for the season on April 15, three months earlier than usual.
The agreement is the result of a nearly two-year litigation effort by the Phoenix-based Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental nonprofit that in 2017 sued the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, claiming the agency had fallen short in preventing Dungeness crab fishing gear from killing humpback, blue whales and leatherback sea turtles. Fish and Wildlife is responsible for granting the fishery its permits.
In 2018, the industry was valued at $69.7 million.
The settlement also stipulates that the state’s Dungeness crab fishing will close April 1 in 2020 and 2021 and that the wildlife agency will develop habitat conservation plans and monitor whale hot spots in Central and Northern California — where whales feed in the spring along their migration route — to see if earlier closures are required. The area of closure will be from Sonoma County to the south. Areas north of Sonoma County will be open to fishing.
If officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which monitors the federally protected marine mammals off the coast, identify more than 20 whales in an area, an immediate closure could be ordered by the director of the wildlife agency. Early crab fishing closures wouldn’t apply to fishermen with rope-less gear, a technique that is years off.
Additionally, crab fishermen and others using set fishing gear in California will be required to mark all of their gear. Fish and Wildlife is also required to move quickly to get a federal conservation plan and permit into place, the first time the department has pursued a federal permit for protecting endangered species.
“This is a victory for all of us in California,” Kristen Monsell, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said Monday, March 25. “We appreciate the state wildlife agency working with us. This agreement is a great victory for whales and sea turtles. This is a turning point to get to zero entanglements.”
Noah Oppenheim, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of the Fishermen’s Association and Institute for Fisheries, said the early closure to the crab fishing season, which starts in early November, is likely to have a significant effect on the fishermen.
“The springtime fishery is the highest value of the year, the quality of the crab is quite high,” he said. “We’ll see a huge revenue hit in the 2019 season. But, the pace next year will not be impacted. We don’t know how many fishermen would have continued in spring but it will likely be multiple million in lost revenue.”
Oppenheim said it’s not just the fisheries that will see a shift.
“It also impacts others working with the industry including processors, markets, restaurants, tourism,” he said. “The number of people impacted is in the thousands.”
Paul Kneeland, executive director of fresh food at Gelsons Market, a premier supermarket chain with 27 stores between Santa Barbara and San Diego, said the fishery closure will have a direct effect on the market price and availability of Dungeness crab products.
“The cost will go up and it will be a get-it-while-you-can product for the next few weeks,” he said.
The chain sold more than 40,000 pounds of Dungeness crab last year, Kneeland said, including crab cakes at the deli and in the fresh fish section, whole Dungeness crabs and Dungeness crab meat.
“It’s sad it’s closing early,” he said, adding that Gelson’s stocks local and California products, but might need to source crabs from the Northwest.
Oppenheim said it’s likely the crabs not caught this year would be fished in the 2020 season. There are 550 California permit holders in the crab fishing fleet, which stretches north from Morro Bay.
The Center for Biological Diversity sued the wildlife agency in October 2017 after the total number of whale entanglements from all fishing industries broke records for three straight years.Preliminary numbers from the NOAA in 2018 show that whale entanglements were trending up, after dipping a year earlier.
In 2018, at least 45 whales were confirmed entangled in the waters off Alaska, Oregon, Washington and California; 35 of them off the California coast. NOAA officials said Tuesday that at least seven of those entanglements involved Dungeness crab gear. Still, in all the entanglements since data has been kept, only 17 percent of confirmed entanglements have been attributed to the California Dungeness crab fishing fleet.
While most of the fishing gear found on entangled whales and sea turtles can’t be identified, officials with the Center for Biological Diversity found that when the gear was marked, it most frequently belonged to the Dungeness crab fishery. The pots and lines also have been spotted on whales found emaciated in Baja lagoons.
Disentanglement teams working off Southern California often find gear on gray whales traveling north heading out of Mexico. But entanglements also come as a result of whales being caught in gear used to catch swordfish, spot prawn and hagfish.
Center officials say the Dungeness crab fishing industry sets heavy traps at the bottom of the ocean with a single rope running through the water column and a buoy at or near the surface. Fishermen sometimes attach trailer buoys to the main buoy and whales get tangled up in the lines. In some cases, slack lines act as a noose on whales and sea turtles.
Each entanglement of a humpback whale, blue whale or leatherback sea turtle violates the Endangered Species Act.
Oppenheim, of the fishermen’s association, said the industry has been working to make improvements. He pointed to efforts by the California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group, which was founded in 2015 by Fish and Wildlife, in partnership with the California Ocean Protection Council and National Marine Fisheries Service, to address the increase in whale entanglements in crab fishing gear.
The group is made up of commercial and recreational fishermen, environmental organization representatives, members of the disentanglement network, and state and federal agencies.
For instance, he said, the working group has developed a Risk Assessment and Mitigation Program, creating models and timelines to monitor risks to whales and sea turtles over time.
Oppenheim said though Tuesday’s agreement is a “hard pill” for the fishermen to swallow, they are resigned to accept it.
“It’s something we took in consideration that possibly an injunction would have ended fishing entirely until we have the federal permit,” he said. “That was something we wanted to avoid.
“These measures are significantly different than what we’ve seen before,” he added. “This is visionary.”
Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, on Monday lauded the efforts by all groups involved in the settlement.
“This is a place I didn’t think we’d end up in,” he said. “We’ve been at this for several weeks. In my view, we can do right by our natural resources.”