SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The state of California lets Dungeness crab fishermen inadvertently kill endangered whales and sea turtles by authorizing fishing gear that traps the threatened creatures, environmentalists claim in a new lawsuit.
The Center for Biological Diversity sued Charlton Bonham, director of the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, in federal court on Tuesday. The center says the state’s approval of crab traps, fishing lines, buoys, and other gear violates the Endangered Species Act.
“Entanglement in commercial fishing gear is one of the primary threats impeding the recovery of imperiled humpback whales, blue whales, and leatherback sea turtles,” the 16-page complaint states.
From 2014 through 2016, the rates of endangered animals trapped in crabbing gear on the West Coast spiked to their highest levels since the federal government started tracking the numbers in 1982, according to the complaint.
Entanglement can cause immediate death by drowning, and starvation, bone damage, wounds that lead to fatal infections, and reduced birth rates when pregnant females get trapped.
Last year, 22 endangered animals were ensnared in Dungeness crab gear, including 19 humpback whales, two blue whales and one leatherback sea turtle, according to the complaint.
While those numbers may seem small, the center’s attorney Kristen Monsell says the taking of even one creature can devastate imperiled marine animal populations like the mere 411 estimated humpback whales in the Central American population segment.
The National Marine Fisheries Service previously found the death of one female sea turtle could jeopardize the entire Western Pacific population, she said.
“While the numbers may be small on paper, in context they are very significant from a conservation perspective,” Monsell said, adding a large number of entanglements also go unreported each year.
“Whales will immediately drown and sink to the bottom of the seafloor never to be seen again,” she said. “That’s one example of why reported entanglements are lower.”
Monterey had the highest number of reported entanglements in 2016, and that increase correlated with the rising number of Dungeness crabs brought in through Monterey Bay, according to the suit.
Fishermen harvested more than 26.67 million pounds of Dungeness crabs off the California coast in 2016, valued at $83.1 million, according to state data cited in the center’s complaint.
Although the state assembled a working group to draft recommendations to minimize whale entanglements, Monsell says voluntary measures have proven insufficient.
“It’s time for the state to be held accountable and to enact regulatory reforms to this fishery that are mandatory so it can prevent these deadly, painful entanglements in the future,” Monsell said.
The lawsuit claims each entanglement of an endangered whale or turtle is an unauthorized “take” under the Endangered Species Act and that the state lacks an incidental take permit to authorize such a program.
The center seeks an injunction requiring the state to stop permitting commercial Dungeness crab gear without an incidental take permit from the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service.
State Fish and Wildlife spokesman Peter Tira declined to comment on pending litigation.
The commercial Dungeness crab fishing season is scheduled to reopen on Nov. 15.