California Plans to Protect Whales From Crab Traps Rankle All Sides

Crab traps, Bodega Bay, California. (Courthouse News photo/Chris Marshall)

(CN) — At a public hearing Monday on proposed regulations for managing whale and sea turtle entanglements in commercial crab fishing gear on California’s coast, one thing was clear: No one’s happy.

Stakeholders on both sides of the aisle had complaints — environmentalists don’t think the protections go far enough, while industry groups say the regulations threaten the economic viability of the crab fishing industry.

Set to take effect Nov. 1, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Risk Assessment Mitigation Program (RAMP) will serve as the primary mechanism for mitigating entanglement risk to humpback and blue whales and leatherback sea turtles whose populations are endangered and could suffer additional casualties due to getting caught in Dungeness crab fishing gear.

The regulation would replace the interim authority given to the director of the Department of Fish and Wildlife under Senate Bill 1309, a 2018 law which gave the director the ability to restrict take of Dungeness crab in response to significant risk of marine life entanglement.

In 2018, 7 of the 46 confirmed whale entanglements on the coast of California, Oregon and Washington state reported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were associated with California Dungeness crab commercial traps.

The vast majority — 30 — of the whale entanglements reported by NOAA in 2018 happened off California’s coast, though the location where animals are reported entangled does not necessarily reflect where the entanglement occurred.

A lawsuit brought the year prior by the Center for Biological Diversity over whale and sea turtle entanglements in California Dungeness crab fishery traps spurred a settlement between the environmental nonprofit, Department of Fish and Wildlife and Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Associations that ended the 2019 fishing season early.

The Center for Biological Diversity suggested the settlement led to a drop in whale entanglements in 2019, down to 18 reported entanglements on the West Coast.

The proposed regulations — formulated with feedback from the California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group — would protect blue and humpback whales and leatherback sea turtles from entanglement in the traps used during crab fishing season.

Risk assessments for entanglements will be performed monthly or more frequently during the fishing season. Data on entanglements for each species — “impact scores” — will be used to determine if the fishing season should be closed for the remainder of the year, a data calculation fishing industry trade groups took issue with during public comment on the proposed regulation Monday.

Ben Platt, president of the California Coast Crab Association, said during the virtual meeting some of the triggers for mitigation or closing fisheries appeared arbitrary, especially those for the leatherback sea turtles, which had only been found entangled off California’s coast once between 2013 and 2019.

“The basis for the proposed RAMP rules are overly zealous and an unfair overreach,” Platt said, adding, “The proposed regulation poses an existential threat to our entire livelihood.”

But Catherine Kilduff, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the proposed regulations do not go far enough to mitigate fishing gear entanglements by still allowing for the vertical fishing lines most dangerous to whales and sea turtles.

“These whales and sea turtles provide the foundation of the ocean’s health … and the nutrient cycle that allows other animals, including Dungeness crabs, to thrive,” Kilduff said.

The Center for Biological Diversity was joined by a host of other ocean conservation organizations in calling for the use of alternative pop-up and ropeless gear during crab season.

If the Department of Fish and Wildlife makes substantial changes to the proposed regulations, it will host another public comment period and public hearing July 23.

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