A humpback whale entangled in fishing gear near Crescent City, seen from a Coast Guard helicopter in 2017. A new regulation, which took effect this month, allows California wildlife officials to close the Dungeness crab fishery in regions where whales are spotted. Bryant Anderson/NOAA
A humpback whale entangled in fishing gear near Crescent City, seen from a Coast Guard helicopter in 2017. A new regulation, which took effect this month, allows California wildlife officials to close the Dungeness crab fishery in regions where whales are spotted. (Bryant Anderson/NOAA)

New Whale Entanglement Rules Delay Crab Season, and the Industry Isn't Happy

New Whale Entanglement Rules Delay Crab Season, and the Industry Isn't Happy

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California has issued new regulations designed to protect endangered humpback whales against potentially fatal entanglements in commercial fishing lines, and the Dungeness crab industry is not happy.

The state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife on Nov. 1 released rules that allow officials to shut down crabbing in areas where whales are spotted.

Under the new regulations, whale activity has already triggered the delay of the 2020 crab season on the Central Coast after aerial and boat surveys spotted an estimated 400 whales. The season was set to open Nov. 15, in time to put crab on Thanksgiving tables. The crab boats will not get the go-ahead until the department makes its next assessment, which is expected to occur before Dec. 1. The area subject to the delay runs from the Sonoma-Mendocino County line to the Mexico border.

The Dungeness crab fishery brings in on average about $30 million each year for California fishermen. But the vertical ropes that connect crab traps on the ocean floor to buoys at the surface can ensnare humpback and blue whales, as well as leatherback sea turtles.

“There's been a major increase in the number of entanglements just in the last five years,” said Geoff Shester, a senior scientist for the environmental nonprofit Oceana.

In 2016 alone, more than 50 confirmed humpback whale entanglements occurred off the West Coast. A report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration listed California's Dungeness crab fishery as the largest contributor. Data from the agency projects that roughly three-quarters of whales that get tangled in the lines may eventually die as a result.

“What these regulations do is they create a new system for determining when certain areas might be closed to crab fishing if there’s a lot of whales or turtles around,” Shester said.

Under the new rules, crabbing can be halted in regions where 20 or more whales are spotted. Toward the end of the season, in the spring, 10 or more whales can trigger a shutdown, and confirmed entanglements have the potential to end the season altogether.

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Thresholds Too Low, Says Industry

Ben Platt, president of the California Coast Crab Association and owner of a fishing boat based out of Crescent City, says the number of whales that can trigger a closure is too small.

“The bottom line is that the thresholds are so low that it's unrealistic to expect that this fishery could continue in any meaningful way,” Platt said.

The crabbing community has worked with the state in recent years to reduce the number of entanglements by putting less gear in the water and supporting closures when necessary, Platt says. In his view, the typical seven-month Dungeness crab season is now in danger of being reduced to three or four months and potentially even fewer.

Nowadays, the crab fishery is really the most widely shared and economically important fishery to the coastal communities in California,” Platt said. “We're potentially looking at the devastation of a whole commercial fishing industry, because if we lose Dungeness crab, most of us are going to have to quit, because it's our most important and our most dependable fishery.”

Ryan Bartling, a senior environmental scientist for the state Fish and Wildlife Department’s Marine Region, says commercial crab fishermen, along with environmental groups and state and federal agencies, were part of the state’s Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group, which helped craft the new rules.

“We're trying to balance the need to protect an endangered species and allow for the crabbing fishery to continue and be viable for the state of California and all the fishing communities that depend on it,” Bartling said. “It's a dual-goal regulation.

Bartling adds that closing down fishing regions isn’t the only way the new rules allow his agency to respond to whale activity.

“It can be a depth restriction, can be a gear reduction, or another management action based on the best available science,” he said.

The regulations also provide a potential avenue for crab fisherman to avoid the closures by using alternative gear that won’t pose a threat to whales and sea turtles. One option, which doesn’t rely on leaving lines in the water for long periods, utilizes crab traps that deploy buoys to the surface when triggered by a timer or signal. This “pop-up” gear, Bartling and many crab fishermen agree, is still a work in progress — expensive and possible to lose on the ocean floor, with more testing needed.

“Given the state of technology, I think we can figure this out,” Bartling said of the different gear, “I just don't know the time frame.