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Shorter season imposed on California’s Dungeness crab fleet to safeguard whales

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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.

Spring is the beginning of the period “when they are found in the most significant numbers, so you have a very heightened risk of entanglement in those areas at those times of year,” she said. “So what the agreement does is it gets the gear out of these very important habitat areas for whales when they’re feeding and at increased risk of entanglement.”

A key requirement in the settlement is a fixed timeline for the state’s planned application for a federal “incidental take permit” under the Endangered Species Act.

That permit and accompanying habitat plan would allow for commercial crabbing to continued despite the occasional loss of endangered wildlife.

Bonham announced his plan to acquire the permit last autumn, but the settlement now requires a draft habitat plan be filed by May 15, 2020.

It also sets deadlines for other rulemaking efforts including regulations guiding retrieval of crab gear.

Ultimately, the industry appears headed toward use of ropeless gear, eliminating the long lines that stretch from a crab pot resting on the ocean bottom to a surface-level buoy.

The settlement empowers a working group established in 2015 to continue efforts experiment with ropeless gear as well solar-powered monitoring tools to track heavy concentrations of fishing vessels with an eye toward predicting likely interactions with whales.

Bonham linked the start of the spike in whale entanglements to a band of unusually warm ocean water, called “the warm blob” that four years ago led to changes in abundance and location of many marine species, including krill and small fish. Whales were led by prey into waters heavily fished by commercial crabbers, whose season had been delayed because of a toxic algae bloom that made the crab potentially unsafe.

That year, more gear was in the water later in the season than usual, Bonham said.

Oppenheim said some of the fishermen he represents are struggling with the economic loss the settlement represents but said that most understand they need to take appropriate steps to ensure the fishery can continue.

“We committed to engaging in this process proactively in order to ensure that people can go to the fish market and down to the docks and feel proud that their commercial fishing resources can operate in a way that is both beneficial to the marine environment and protective of marine species,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.

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