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Gov. Jerry Brown has signed legislation intended to make crab fishermen more accountable for thousands of metal wire traps and other gear lost each season in the ocean and blamed for an escalating number of whale entanglements.

Authored by North Coast state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, the Whale Protection and Gear Retrieval Act outlines a fee-based system through which crabbers can recover abandoned crab pots from the ocean in exchange for a reward. The system requires the owners of the recovered gear to pay up to get it back or risk losing their fishing permits for the coming season.

The bill passed the Legislature this summer with the support of both environmentalists and commercial crabbers eager to demonstrate their interest in making coastal waters safer for the many species of whales and other marine mammals who easily become entangled and weighed down with hundreds of pounds of equipment. Without human intervention, many of the animals die.

McGuire hailed fishermen for backing the program, calling it “the right thing to do for the sustainability of the coast and the sustainability of the fleet.”

“We need to have a clean coast to have a successful crab fleet,” he said.

The new law is set to go into effect next year, covering Dungeness and rock crab fishermen statewide. Officials with the Department of Fish and Wildlife will be responsible for determining the amount fishermen receive as reward for recovered gear and the fees they will need to pay to get their lost equipment back. A commercial crab pot can cost several hundred dollars — more if it is attached to a long length of line.

McGuire estimated that from Santa Barbara north to the Oregon border, “thousands and thousands” of lost crab traps litter the ocean near the coast. Over the past two years alone, as part of a voluntary program, 1,500 lost traps have been recovered by fishermen.

In 2015, a record 57 whale entanglement cases were reported off the state’s coastline — a 90 percent increase from the previous year along the entire coast of the western United States, which accounted for 32 reports in 2014.

This year, there were 40 entanglement reports offshore of California alone by mid-year, said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“It’s a huge, huge increase” in whales caught in crabbing gear in particular, said Kristen Monsell, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity environmental group.

Between 2000 and 2012, an average of eight large whale entanglements were reported each year off the state’s coast, according to NOAA. More than a third involved fishing pots or traps, while another third were undetermined, the federal agency said.

“We’re talking about really slow, painful deaths” for whales snared by hundreds of pounds of crab pots, lines and floats, Monsell said.

The midsummer end of this year’s Dungeness crabbing season coincided with days of failed efforts by fishermen, federal authorities and others to free a young, endangered blue whale spotted off Orange County with ropes and fishing floats of gear wrapped around its tail and mouth. Many species of whales, including the blue, are federally protected.

Associated Press contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.

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