New rules for California Dungeness crab fleet seek fewer whale entanglements
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife on Friday unveiled a batch of complex new rules designed to reduce the risk to endangered whales and sea turtles of becoming entangled in commercial Dungeness crab fishing gear.
The draft regulations are set to be finalized before the next commercial season starts in November after a period of public review.
They expand on a framework established under a legal settlement reached last year that allows for the state’s $60-million-a-year crab fishery to be delayed or closed when surveys and other observations suggest a high risk of concentrated fishing gear and marine life overlapping in the same place. The new rules are meant to allow more nuanced risk assessment and precise management actions rather than the closure of large swaths of ocean, as seen in recent seasons.
Among the provisions are options to restrict fishing in certain depths, require crabbers to set only a share of the traps for which they’re permitted or limit intervention to any of six newly established geographic zones, rather than the larger Northern and Central California management districts that currently exist.
“We’re thrilled that this came out because it’s been a really long process to get them to the point of proposed rules, and we wish this action had come out years ago,” said Catherine Kilduff, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, whose 2017 lawsuit drove development of the regulations. “It’s a huge win for the whales and the sea turtles, and it’s something that every fishery that has gear-entangled animals should be doing.”
Stakeholders have the next 45 days to scrutinize the document.
Crabbers may take issue with provisions that leave them with the burden of proof to demonstrate that it’s safe when survey flights are ruled out for weather or other reasons.
Conservation groups, meanwhile, feel there is insufficient incentive built into the draft rules for investment and innovation in ropeless and other alternative gear that would make crabbing less risky for marine mammals.
The draft rules feed into a federal approval needed under the Endangered Species Act that will allow the crab fishery to continue, as long as it can demonstrate substantial effort to prevent entanglements of imperiled animals.
The West Coast fishery has seen an alarming rise in whale entanglements since 2013, many linked to commercial crab gear, though other equipment, including traps and nets have also been involved.
Endangered humpback whales continue to account for the highest number of entanglements, with 36 confirmed since 2013. At least three endangered blue whales, the largest mammals on Earth, have been entangled since 2013, according to the state and federal wildlife agencies.
Rarer are entanglements involving leatherback sea turtles, only one of which has been confirmed since 2013. But they are critically endangered and travel extraordinary distances between breeding and feeding grounds, so each loss is significant, Kilduff said.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which tracks marine entanglements, confirmed 48 reported incidents off California, Oregon, Washington, Baja and British Columbia in 2017, including 19 tied to commercial crab gear.
But the spike prompted the Center for Biological Diversity to sue the California Department of Fish and Wildlife the following year.
The March 2019 settlement, which included fishing groups, required regular risk assessments and allowed Chuck Bonham, the state fish and wildlife director, to delay or close the Dungeness fishery when he deemed risk of entanglement too high. The season was ended 2½ months early last year, delayed a month last fall and ended six weeks early this year, closing Friday.
A now 5-year-old state-chartered working group comprised of various stakeholders, including public agencies, conservationists, commercial crabbers and others, has sought to navigate the fishery through the bumpy waters.
San Francisco fisherman John Mellor, a commercial crabber for some four decades and a founding member of the working group, said the attitude of fishermen between then and now is “black and white.”
“When I first started, people were really suspicious of it and looked at me with suspicion, like ‘Why are you doing this?’?” said Mellor, 56. “It’s completely flipped.”
They now understand what’s at stake, he said. “These regulations will protect the fishery from a more draconian shutdown,” said another working group member, Geoff Shester, California campaign director for Oceana, a nonprofit conservation group. “It’s going to help the fishery become legal under the Endangered Species Act.”
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or email@example.com.