A new California Department of Fish and Wildlife rule adding restrictions to commercial Dungeness crab fishing could reduce the number of whales and sea turtles found entangled in fishing gear off the California coast.
On Nov. 1, the state wildlife agency adopted the new regulations that will limit where and how commercial fishing happens in six sections of central and northern California coastline when large numbers of whales and turtles are present. Already it has delayed the start of this year’s fishing season.
The plan will also encourage the use of alternative gear less hazardous to the animals. Entanglements in the thick ropes that are connected to heavy commercial Dungeness crab traps have been found to injure and kill whales and sea turtles.
According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data, there were 16 cases confirmed of whales – mostly gray whales – entangled in lines so far this year, and another nine reported that couldn’t be confirmed, including some humpback whales. Fishery representatives say their fishing gear was found on only one of the entangled whales this year, an improvement from past years.
The plan – developed after a spike in entanglements – was made in collaboration with the California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working group, which is comprised of commercial and recreational crab fishers, environmentalists, members of the disentanglement network and state and federal agencies.
An aerial survey last week of 700 miles of fishing ranges scheduled to open on Nov. 15 spotted several concentrations of more than 40 humpback whales, so under the new rule the wildlife agency has delayed the season’s start.
According to the new regulations, if more than 20 whales or sea turtles are spotted in an area, it can trigger a closure.
“While no one wants to delay the season, CDFW and the working group feel a delay is necessary to reduce the risk of entanglement,” Charlton Bonham, director of the wildlife agency, said. “The fleet has gone to great lengths to be more nimble in order to protect whales and turtles, and the results are promising.”
Ryan Bartling, a senior environmental scientist for the wildlife agency’s Whale Safe Fisheries department, was on board the plane that looked for whales.
“Last week, we had almost perfect conditions,” he said. “We did see an aggregation of humpbacks north of Monterrey and Half Moon Bay. We saw 40 or more in a couple of instances. Based on what we see from NOAA, there’s been a persistent high pressure and a lot of forage fish like anchovies. Because of that, they’re not that interested in swimming south.”
More surveys – via boat, helicopter and plane – will be done in the coming weeks, including in fishing zones to the north that were expected to open on Dec. 1.
“(If) the risk is found to no longer be elevated, the fishery can open,” Bartling said. “If not, it could delay longer.”
Mike Conroy, president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association, said the new rule poses some consternation among fishermen, but they also don’t want to entangle whales and turtles. He and others agree the regulations will help provide an appropriate response if there is elevated risk.
“There is some very real fear that one of California’s most valuable fisheries – and a key economic driver for some central and northern California ports and fishing communities – will be unnecessarily constrained,” Conroy said. “Having said that, the regulations are new and how the process will be implemented has yet to unfold.”
Monthly surveys will continue even as the fishing season is underway. Typically, the crabs are fished from November to May.
If areas of concentration are found, there could be closures. Another option would be for fishers to reduce the amount of gear in the water – or if a whale or sea turtle is found at a certain depth, crabbers won’t be allowed to drop their pots there. If there’s one confirmed Dungeness fishery entanglement, a fishing range may be closed or other action taken depending on the circumstances and available information, Bartling said.
There are 550 California Dungeness crab commercial fishing permits, which mostly operate north of Point Conception. Last year, 450 of those were active. In 2019, the fleet brought in 15.6 million pounds of crab worth $51.8 million.
The delay of the opening of the Dungeness crab season will definitely impact the fleet, Conroy said. The early weeks typically see the largest volume of crabs and a healthy market that supports it increases the value of the fishery.
It could also locally impact dinner tables at Thanksgiving and Christmas. The demand for crab is twice as high during the holidays as other times of the year.
Most crabbers use round pots wrapped in mesh wire that are about a foot high. Crabs crawl into holes within the trap and can’t escape. The pot sits on the seafloor with a line running vertically to a buoy floating on the surface. Traps can be set as deep as 600 feet, but most are at about 300 feet. It’s the vertical lines, which are often slack, that experts say pose the most risk for entangling whales.
The wildlife agency is also watching advancements in alternative gear that would either use no ropes or lessen the number of ropes holding the traps. Ropeless gear, which would be much more expensive to outfit fishers with, is being tested on the East Coast as a response to the high number of entanglements of the North Atlantic right whale.
The wildlife agency has been working since 2017 to better identify the risks for sea life and possible solutions, but with an escalating number of whales being entangled, as well as a settlement agreement following a lawsuit by the environmental nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, the department sped up its efforts.
The nonprofit center sued the wildlife agency, saying it fell short in preventing Dungeness crab gear from killing whales and sea turtles. Fish and Wildlife grants the fishery its permits.
“It’s good to see California finally taking whale entanglements seriously,” Kristen Monsell, the center’s oceans legal director, said in response to the adoption of the new rule. “This new system should reduce the risk crab gear poses to whales and sea turtles. But we’re disappointed that officials didn’t do more to encourage conversion to ropeless gear, which is the only way to truly eliminate the threat of entanglement for these ocean animals.”
Hendrik Nollens, who heads research and science conservation at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, is working with researchers on the East Coast to implement new disentanglement protocols that could help whales on the West Coast, including sedating animals while rescuers work to free them. The mammal center is among several response teams that work with NOAA in Southern California.
This is the time of year when PMMC gears up for reports of entanglements, as whales began traveling south.
“When these animals are entangled, they suffer a long, gruesome death,” he said. “It takes them six to nine months to die. It’s a slow agony where they swim for months with this heavy gear.”
Justin Viezbicke, who supervises disentanglement efforts off California as NOAA’s marine mammal stranding coordinator, said he is cautiously optimistic about the new regulations, calling them a step in the right direction.
“The challenging part is that whales are constantly on the move, so managing locations in real-time can be very difficult,” Viezbicke said. “This is one of the first years with these types of regulations, so we don’t really know how it will affect the overall numbers of entanglements, but we are hopeful that we will see fewer entanglements.”
Source: Orange County Register