California Dungeness Crab Fishery to Close 3 Months Early to Protect Whales

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Two deckhands pull in a crab pot on Dick Ogg's boat in Bodega Bay.  (Amy Westervelt/KQED)

A settlement announced Tuesday between fishers, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity will bring an April 15 close to the Dungeness crab season statewide, three months earlier than it usually ends.

The lawsuit centered around the entanglement of whales and leatherback sea turtles in crab-fishing gear, which spiked in 2015 and 2016.

While fishers and the CDFW pointed to the 2015-2016 crab season as an anomaly triggered by an unusually warm blob of water off the California coast, CBD attorney Kristen Monsell said the group wasn't seeing enough action from the California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group, which formed to tackle whale entanglements following that season. She said many of the conditions present that year have persisted: The crab fishery has had a delayed start three out of the last four years due to high domoic acid levels driven by warming waters.

A preliminary count for 2018 showed 45 whale entanglements on the West Coast, compared with 31 confirmed entanglements in 2017. Between 2000 and 2014, the West Coast saw an average of 10 entanglements per year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

What no one disagrees on is that climate change has altered ocean conditions in ways that are harmful to both whales and the livelihoods of fishers.

"There are several reasons why people think we're seeing a big spike in entanglements. One is climate change," Monsell said. "The whales are going into and staying in different waters at different times of the year than they have in the past."

That shift began in 2015, when a large warm-water blob appeared off the coast of California. Warm-water currents are normal, but this was a large blob of water that was approximately 7 degrees higher than normal warm currents. That caused a spike in large algae blooms and shifted the marine food web. The algae contributed to a buildup in crab of domoic acid, a harmful neurotoxin, delaying the opening of the Dungeness crab fishing season from November 2015 to late March 2016. The warm water caused krill, the whales' preferred food, to move closer to shore, while also driving a concentration of crab in Morro and Monterey bays, spots that tend to be less popular for crabbers.

"With warm water, no krill, high concentrations of crab gear, it was the perfect storm, a situation that was going to potentially cause problems," said Dick Ogg, a crab boat captain in Bodega Bay, who has been heavily involved in the crab gear working group.

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When they didn't see enough action to prevent future entanglements in 2016, the Center for Biological Diversity filed suit against the state fish and wildlife agency in 2017, charging that the state needed to have a federal incidental take permit — governing the conservation of endangered species, like the leatherback sea turtles and particular types of humpback whales that were getting entangled in the fishery's gear — to allow the crab fishery to continue.

The suit was delayed initially, but earlier this year a federal judge said it would go forward, prompting CBD, DFW and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations (PCFFA) to negotiate a settlement.

While the fishery is closing April 15 this year, it will close for districts south of Mendocino on April 1 beginning in 2020, unless auditors determine there is low risk of entanglements, which will be monitored every two weeks after April 1. These restrictions will be in place until the federal permit is attained, to avoid having crab gear and migrating whales in the water at the same time.

Crabbers using ropeless gear will be able to continue fishing past the spring closure, which both DFW and CBD hope will spur adoption of new "smart" crab pots that use sensor-equipped buoys and pots, and GPS, instead of rope. The ropeless gear is fairly new and expensive — around $15,000 compared to a $200 traditional crab pot. But if enough crabbers are incentivized to make the investment to extend their seasons, the hope is that the technology will scale, bringing prices down.

The crab fishery has opened late three out of the last four years due to persistent domoic acid issues triggered by climate change. Spring closures could further shrink the season for fishers, potentially costing the nearly $70 million industry millions of dollars in lost revenue annually.

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CDFW Director Chuck Bonham has reached out to federal representatives in an attempt to secure a disaster payment owed to fishers since the 2015 closures, and said the state needs to start thinking through how it will help rural coastal communities adapt to climate change and how it will support fisheries, including incentivizing ropeless gear.

"What does it look like to have the right wharfs and infrastructure for chillers and boats, and what does it look like to prepare them for the future?" Bonham said.

The West Coast Dungeness crab fishery is one of the most sustainable in the country, as it's self-replenishing.

"The paradoxical nature of this is really challenging to accept," PCFFA Executive Director Noah Oppenheim said. "That we would be looking at closures in an otherwise healthy fishery — whether it's driven by domoic acid or other factors — to close a fishery that's doing well is something new in American fisheries management, and we need to treat it differently from the kinds of closures that we've had to institute when climate forces or overfishing have resulted in stock depletion. It's a new phenomenon."

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The PCFFA has recently taken matters into its own hands and filed suit against the country's largest oil producers for their role in both contributing to climate change and working to cover up its imminent threat.

"We are going to be looking at domoic acid impacts driven by climate change every single season in perpetuity, and it's disruptive, it's damaging, it destroys communities. And we do not have appropriate mechanisms to support fishermen when these events occur. We have to do something, and that something to date has been closing and waiting multiple years for federal disaster assistance that may not ever be delivered," Oppenheim said.

"It's crystal-clear that prevailing ocean conditions in 2015 and 2016 and since have been driven by destabilizing atmospheric forces, and ocean circulation dynamics have been changing because of climate change," he said. "It's indisputable, and the fossil fuel industry doesn't dispute the science. What they dispute is whether they're culpable. But they are liable and we're holding them to account. We're gonna make them pay."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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