California's Dungeness crab season to end early after settlement over whale entanglements

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California’s Dungeness crab season is poised to come to an abrupt end next month, with the commercial fishery closing 2½ months early as part of a legal settlement announced Tuesday aimed at reducing the potential for whale and sea turtle entanglements in coastal waters.

The April 15 closure, disclosed by an industry source Monday morning, is part of an agreement negotiated by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the nonprofit Centers for Biological Diversity, which sued the state agency in October 2017. It accused the agency of running the crab fishery in a manner that effectively created what the plaintiff’s lead attorney once called a “minefield of crab traps” for marine creatures.

“The agreement means we’ll see meaningful changes on the water and is a great victory for whales and sea turtles off our coast,” Kristen Monsell, an attorney for the center, said Monday.

The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations also was a party to the negotiations as an “intervener,” representing the interests of the crabbing fleet, some of whose members would continue to pull crab up until June 30 if they could.

Instead, they’ll be scrambling to get their gear out of the water by April 15, as required by a complicated settlement still to be revealed in full by the three participating parties on Tuesday morning. Negotiators to the agreement declined to comment on its contents Monday.

Spring, summer and fall are a particularly busy time for whales off the California coast, and especially for endangered humpback whales. Central California is “a known ‘hot spot’ for humpback whales,” according to legal briefings filed by the Centers for Biological Diversity.

Humpback whales are a species highly represented among those involved in gear entanglements, particularly in Monterey Bay.

San Francisco and Monterey Bay areas also are feeding “hot spots” for endangered blue whales, while critically endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtles roam extensively between Point Arena in southern Mendocino County and Santa Barbara, the organization stated in its briefings.

For some commercial crabbers, though, pulling their gear in what many expect may be the first round of concessions as details of the settlement play out into the future is painful.

“It hurts,” said veteran Bodega Bay crabber Tony Anello, who hails from a family of fishermen that owns Spud Point Crab Company. “Guys like me, right now I want to fish to the end.”

Absent some aggravating factor, the commercial Dungeness crab season typically runs Nov. 15 to June 30 each year in the management area south of the Sonoma-Mendocino county line. The bulk of the catch — more than half the landings in 2017 — is typically made in the first six weeks, over the lucrative holiday market. But crab caught in the final few months can fetch a good price and help carry those who only fish crab over to the next season, said Dick Ogg, a well-known Bodega Bay fisherman.

“It’s a huge blow, economically,” said another skipper, John Cooley, “on top of many, many others.”

In 2017, California fishermen caught 12.8 million pounds of Dungeness crab worth $47 million off the boat, according to state Fish and Wildlife data. Nearly $11 million worth was landed in Bodega Bay.

Yet, uncertainty in all ocean fisheries, including crab — illustrated best by a 4½-month delay in the start of the 2015-16 Dungeness crab season due to toxic algae and the related threat of contaminated crustaceans — have contributed to financial hardship and declining participation in the fishery. It all has happened under the cloud of the whale entanglement litigation.

The lawsuit was filed in response to a spike in confirmed whale entanglements beginning in 2014, at least some of which could be directly linked to crab gear, though often it’s not possible to determine what sort of equipment is involved.

Federal officials identified 23 entanglements involving crab gear in 2016, including 19 humpback whales, two blue whales, one killer whale and one leatherback sea turtle.

Under the state’s permitting regime, the California Dungeness crabbing fleet is authorized to deploy 174,025 traps in coastal waters each season. Traps are hooked to lines and buoys that can wrap around a whale’s fluke, fin, tail or mouth, potentially impeding its movement or reproduction or forcing it to drag heavy gear for months, even years, if it doesn’t drown first, according to the plaintiff’s legal briefs.

But in its own legal briefs, state Fish and Wildlife notes that the entanglement numbers from crabbing gear have declined since 2016.

The agency also points to work in the agency to respond to the entanglement problem, including unprecedented authority granted to Director Chuck Bonham effective Jan. 1 under legislation authored by North Coast state Sen. Mike McGuire. It empowers Bonham to restrict or even close commercial crab fishing in areas where there is heightened risk of entanglement.

California Fish and Wildlife also assembled in September 2015 a working group that includes representation from commercial and recreational fishermen, environmental groups, state and federal agencies and the Marine Mammal Disentanglement Network. The group has been working to establish best management practices, explore new technologies and risk assessment programs to reduce entanglement risks.

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