Today, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife issued proposed regulatory changes to the state’s commercial Dungeness crab fishery that aim to allow fishermen to continue to supply fresh crab in a way that reduces the risk of endangered whales and sea turtles becoming entangled in fishing gear.
The proposed changes come on the heels of the Department Director declaring an early closure of the commercial Dungeness crab fishery off the central California coast— south of the Sonoma/Mendocino county line — from May 15 through the remainder of the season due to humpback whale sightings in the area being above average for this time of year. The Northern Management Area — north of the Sonoma/Mendocino county line — will remain open to crab fishing.
Whales and sea turtles are susceptible to entanglement in fishing gears that involve lines connecting traps to surface buoys — like crab, shrimp and lobster pots. The most common gear identified in entanglements off the West Coast is Dungeness crab traps. Once entangled, whales can trail heavy fishing gear behind them for months on end, which can hinder their ability to dive and feed, cause infection, and in some cases even sever appendages. According to federal experts, roughly 75 percent of whale entanglements are fatal. Entangled sea turtles may be anchored to the gear and can drown if they are unable to get free.
The proposed regulatory changes apply to three species — humpback whales, blue whales and Pacific leatherback sea turtles — which have endangered populations that swim and feed in waters off California.
The proposed changes require specific areas of the ocean to be closed to commercial Dungeness crab fishing when higher concentrations of whales or sea turtles are present, but also allow certain innovative pop-up fishing gear to be used in closed areas, thus providing opportunities for continued fishing. Pop-up fishing gear — also known as “ropeless” gear — keeps all lines and buoy with the trap on the ocean floor without the traditional long rope connected to a surface buoy. A signal from the boat releases a flotation device connected to the trap on the ocean floor, so fishermen can retrieve the trap without the constant threat that long ropes pose to unsuspecting marine life. Oceana has been partnering with crab fishermen since 2018 to test the use of pop-up gear off California.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife is accepting written public comments on the proposed regulations through June 29 and will hold a virtual public hearing on June 29. The final regulations are scheduled to go into effect for the next fishing season, starting November 2020.
Oceana’s California Campaign Director and Senior Scientist, Dr. Geoff Shester, released the following statement in response:
“Oceana commends the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for proposing these regulatory changes which are critical to maintaining the sustainability of one of the state’s most important and lucrative fisheries while responsibly responding to the increased need for additional protections for some of the ocean’s most endangered species. Dungeness crab is a valued seafood for Californians. Oceana is pleased to be a member of the Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group, engaging collaboratively over the last few years with state fishery managers, fishermen, scientists, disentanglement teams and other groups to develop thoughtful and realistic solutions that will ensure Dungeness crab fishermen can continue their operations while providing additional safeguards necessary to help endangered whale and sea turtle populations recover and thrive off our coast. These new, proposed regulations, in addition to further development of innovative pop-up gear, can keep fishermen catching crabs and protect whales and sea turtles at the same time.”
Oceana is the largest international advocacy organization dedicated solely to ocean conservation. Oceana is rebuilding abundant and biodiverse oceans by winning science-based policies in countries that control one-third of the world’s wild fish catch. With more than 225 victories that stop overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution, and the killing of threatened species like turtles and sharks, Oceana’s campaigns are delivering results. A restored ocean means that 1 billion people can enjoy a healthy seafood meal, every day, forever. Together, we can save the oceans and help feed the world. Visit www.usa.oceana.org to learn more.