Crab season halted to save whales & turtles

 Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – The commercial Dungeness crab season will close three months early, on April 15, a measure that’s part of a lawsuit settlement on reducing whale and sea turtle impacts. 

Filed in federal court on March 26, the settlement resolves a lawsuit that sought to hold the state liable for its management of the Dungeness crab fishery and the crab gear entanglements of whales and other marine animals. 

The Center for Biological Diversity sued the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) in 2017 and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA) intervened as an additional defendant. The settlement emerged after several weeks of negotiations that have been described as intense. 

The Dungeness season closes early this season and on April 1 next year. Early closures and other settlement provisions will continue until the CDFW completes the effort that’s considered a comprehensive solution – drafting a habitat conservation plan and getting a federal incidental take permit. 

Those processes will set management measures to reduce entanglement, which might include the mitigations in the settlement. 

Other conditions include doing entanglement “risk assessments” and whale presence monitoring that could trigger closures of crabbing areas. 

Mandatory gear retrieval and gear marking is directed to begin next season. 

Peak protection

Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), said the spring and early summer months are when the highest numbers of entanglements have occurred and shortening the season is “a way of protecting whales at a time when they come back in very large numbers from their breeding grounds, to feed off the California coast.” 

She added, “It’s a way of protecting these animals in the future and to ensure that the fishery is complying with the Federal Endangered Species Act.”

Warm water conditions spurred by climate change are drawing whales inshore, where they’re more likely to come into contact with gear and “that’s all the more reason why California needs to take protective action and strong management actions,” Monsell said. 

Thirty-one West Coast whale entanglements were confirmed in 2017, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  

That’s a favorable result compared to the peaks seen in 2015 and 2016, when 50 and 48 entanglements were confirmed. But prior to 2014, there were less than 10 entanglements per year on average. 

Continuing a recent trend, the California coast was where most of the 2017 entanglements were observed and confirmed, accounting for 26 of them.

A 2018 report will be released soon and has been described as showing an increase in entanglements, with the majority of them in California.  

But since the current season began last November, there has only been one confirmed entanglement off the California coast. 

‘A little bit of cussing’

During a statehouse fisheries hearing several days before the settlement was reached, CDFW Director Chuck Bonham said he’d met with PCFFA boardmembers and “there was a little bit of cussing involved, some directed at me.” 

Asked about that, Noah Oppenheim, the PCFFA’s executive director, said that there was indeed “a heated discussion” and “there’s a lot of passion, a lot of anger and a lot of raw emotion” due to the settlement’s effects. 

“The fleet’s going through the stages of grief right now -- losing a significant amount of time is extraordinarily difficult to deal with,” Oppenheim said. 

The majority of Dungeness landings occur during the first several weeks of the season but the income stream continues even as the catch tapers in the spring months. 

“The fishery could easily lose multiple to tens of millions of dollars of revenue,” Oppenheim said when asked about the impacts of season shortening. “The price is high late in the season and the live market is really important for many fishermen who configure their businesses to be able to operate in the spring.” 

The spring and early summer months are also “very important for the dockside sales that bring crab fishermen and the public together.” 

The settlement agreement was viewed as a better option than going to trial, which could have resulted in actions such as “the inevitable injunctive relief that would have been sought by the plaintiff, to shut down the fishery entirely,” said Oppenheim. 

 ‘Apocalyptic’ scenario

Crabbing was significantly truncated in the 2015 to 2016 season, which was declared a federal fishery disaster due to the delay caused by the domoic acid toxin. 

Although domoic acid contamination hasn’t been on a disaster scale since, it has continued to be surprisingly persistent and a delay could eliminate a season that ends in April. 

“That’s the apocalyptic worst case scenario and right now, we are unprepared for it,” Oppenheim said, adding that “we’re working with officials in the legislature and the (CDFW) to anticipate that kind of outcome.” 

The federal fisheries disaster relief system is “broken,” Oppenheim continued, and relief funding for the 2015-16 domoic acid disaster is still awaited. 


Monsell highlighted the settlement’s provision for ropeless crab gear, which would be allowed in otherwise closed crabbing areas starting in the spring of 2021. 

“I think that’s an exciting part of this agreement because it gives California a real opportunity to help incentivize the use of this gear and be a leader in getting the gear off the shelf and into the water,” she said. 

But fishermen are skeptical. Oppenheim described ropeless gear as “a unicorn” and said it’s “being held up as a panacea by organizations who want to see the fishery switch to some sort of gear that they favor.” 

He added, “It’s not ready, it’s not workable” and “it’s not the best approach to talk about it like it’s a grand solution that fishermen are going to embrace.” 

Ropeless gear consists of devices attached to crab traps that release lines and buoys when activated. The doubt about its viability is “all the more reason incentivize its use and testing,” Monsell said, adding that tests are being done here and in the East Coast lobster fishery and Canada’s snow crab fishery. 



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