SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Fewer whales were found caught in fishing gear off the West Coast this year, indicating that a settlement that ended California’s Dungeness crab season early appears to be working thus far.
The National Marine Fisheries Service reported 18 whale entanglements through Aug. 23, 2019, compared to 40 ensnared whales found during the same period last year.
“We are really happy that the numbers are lower this year, but we think there still needs to be progress made on reducing the risk of entanglement,” said Catherine Kilduff, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.
The center sued the state in 2017 after whale entanglements reached record-breaking highs three years in a row, peaking with 71 entanglements in 2016. The state’s Fish and Wildlife Department settled the lawsuit this past March, agreeing to cut crabbing season short on April 15 and end future crabbing seasons on April 1 in “whale hot spots” such as Monterey Bay unless certain conditions are met.
Despite the promising numbers reported this year, the discovery of two endangered humpback whales caught in California crab gear in early August has raised alarms for some conservationists.
“We don’t know if this was lost gear or if these poor whales had been entangled for months,” Kilduff said. “State officials and crabbers must do more to reduce entanglement threats to endangered whales and sea turtles.”
A humpback whale was found tangled in crab gear off the coast of Monterey Bay on Aug. 1. Another humpback whale was found trapped in crabbing nets off Santa Cruz Island on Aug. 7.
As part of its settlement, the state agreed to submit a habitat conservation plan – the first step in obtaining an Endangered Species Act incidental take permit – to the federal government by May 15, 2020. A group of stakeholders, including conservationists, commercial fishing representatives and government officials, will meet in Santa Rosa on Wednesday and Thursday to discuss long-term solutions for the plan.
The center is pushing for the state to limit crabbing in whale hot spots, incentivize the use of rope-less crab gear and invest in technology that predicts the movements of endangered marine life.
“This meeting is critical because it precedes the opening of the fishery in November,” Kilduff said.
Because of climate change’s effects on whale migration and crabbing, conservationists are pushing for crabbing season to end early. The warmer climate has led humpback whales to migrate from their spawning habitat off the coast of Mexico and Central America earlier in the year. At the same time, less productive salmon fishing has prompted more fishermen to target Dungeness crab instead of salmon in the spring. That has resulted in more whales and crabbing gear occupying the same areas at that time of year, according to Kilduff.
“There used to be not as much overlap, but that has been a problem, especially in recent years,” Kilduff said.
Kilduff added that Oregon and Washington state must also do more to regulate crabbing and help prevent whale entanglements along the West Coast. The center is currently in talks with both states, she said.
Last year, the center settled a lawsuit with the National Marine Fisheries Service over the agency’s refusal to designate critical habitats for three populations of endangered humpback whales. The Service agreed to submit to the Federal Register a proposed critical habitat determination by June 28, 2019. That deadline was pushed back to Sept. 26 due to the government shutdown this year.