Shorter season imposed on California’s Dungeness crab fleet to safeguard whales
California’s commercial crabbing fleet will be fishing significantly shorter seasons going forward and with greater safeguards in place to avoid ensnaring endangered marine life in potentially deadly gear under a legal settlement announced Tuesday.
The deal, reached between state regulators, environmentalists and representatives of the crab fleet, is meant especially to protect whales, some of them endangered, that feed in abundance during the spring off the Central and North Coast.
The framework unveiled Tuesday will cut the current season and future seasons by as much as 2½ months and mandate a near-constant watch on the entanglement risks posed to sealife. If those risks are too high, regulators could trigger mid-season closures of some areas.
“It’s been my view almost always we can do right by our natural resources and do right by Californians, and do it better together than in a courtroom,” state Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham said during a media call on the settlement.
Other parties to the deal included the Center for Biological Diversity, which sued the state in 2017 over a sharp rise in the number of whale entanglements, and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.
To a large extent, the complex settlement reinforces and formalizes efforts already being developed by wildlife regulators and partners to ensure that imperiled wildlife and the crab fishery can thrive.
State Sen. Mike McGuire, whose North Coast district accounts for most of the state’s crab catch, one of California’s most lucrative fisheries, said the cooperation was a sign of the “extremely proactive” posture the state has adopted “to ensure California’s majestic whale population and our crabbing fleet can co-exist.”
McGuire, D-Healdsburg, stressed the significant role the fishery, last valued at $68 million, plays as “one of the main economic drivers for the North Coast.”
The bulk of the annual haul for the crab fleet comes in the first months of the season.
But in forgoing the last 2½ months, as called for under the settlement, crabbers are still giving up “multiple millions of dollars in lost revenue,” said Noah Oppenheim of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.
But crabbing gear positioned to catch Dungeness— and the lost equipment that each year drifts off the coast — have put endangered species, including endangered humpback and blue whales and Pacific leatherback sea turtles at risk, say environmentalists.
“If we’re going to ensure the survival of these species we have to significantly reduce the risk of entanglements, and we think that this agreement does that in that it does give these animals a chance to survive and hopefully, eventually, to thrive off of our shore,” said Kristen Monsell, senior attorney and oceans program litigation director for the Center for Biological Diversity.
The immediate impact is a statewide closure of the current commercial season April 15, by which time all gear should be removed from the ocean, officials said.
In the near future, the commercial Dungeness crab season, which normally runs Nov. 15 to June 30 south of Mendocino County, will close April 1 by default in the districts from the Sonoma Coast south, absent scientifically-based determinations that the risk of entanglement is low, a possibility Monsell thought unlikely.