Fish and Game Commission tackles Dungeness crab fishery settlement

Agreement between fisheries and environmental groups aims to prevent new whale and sea turtle entanglements.

SANTA MONICA—A tenuous alliance of environmentalists and commercial fishermen appears to be holding steady, all in the name of preventing entanglements of whales and sea turtles off the California coast.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association and California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) are working together to prevent future whale and sea turtle entanglements, which experienced an uptick in 2015. The entanglements were apparently associated with California’s Dungeness crab fishery.

DFW Director Chuck Bonham discussed the recent entanglements and settlement agreement at the April 17 Fish and Game Commission meeting.

“Crabs are a big deal in California,” Bonham told commissioners. “They’re one of our oldest and most lucrative commercial fisheries. It’s also the case whales are a big deal.”

He added much of what we’re experiencing with increased whale populations – which translated into a sudden uptick in entanglements – is the literal result of climate change.

“What was really going on [in 2015 and 2016] was California and our affected communities really experiencing the literal impacts from climate change,” Bonham said.

Much of the Pacific Ocean experienced an increase in water temperatures a few years ago, which resulted in marine life being found in places where they otherwise wouldn’t be spotted.

“Those increase in water temperatures changed the abundance and location of what the whales eat,” Bonham said. “So the predator, the whale, was chasing its prey – which is small fish, krill – and those small fish moved closer to shore. The whales chased them.”

Bonham added the settlement agreement featured quite a bit of give and take, which each party in the settlement probably giving up a little more than they were comfortable sacrificing – but the final terms would allow California to be ahead of the curve in addressing whale entanglements.

“It hasn’t been easy. I don’t think it’s going to get any easier,” Bonham said. “But I do think it’s emblematic of California of trying to be ahead of the curve, trying to be progressive, trying to be climate resilient, trying to make sure we can keep our local fishing communities thriving and reduce entanglements of whales.”

California’s waters serves as a home to one of the most productive ecosystems in the world, according to Bonham. He added there is also an expectation amongst many Californians to protect our oceans.

DFW was sued by the Center for Biological Diversity in October 2017; the lawsuit stated the department, in a blog post about the recent settlement agreement, was liable for “a drastic increase in the number of whale entanglements off the West Coast.”

The settlement agreement, which was entered into on March 28, “protects whales and sea turtles from entanglement in commercial Dungeness crab gear,” according to DFW’s blog post on the legal resolution.

“The settlement, subject to court approval, creates a comprehensive approach to the problem of whale entanglements,” the blog post continued. “It expedites state regulation, ensures stakeholder input from the Dungeness crab Fishing Gear Working Group and formalizes a first-ever commitment by CDFW to pursue a federal permit for protecting endangered species. While these steps are executed, the settlement calls for this year’s crab season to end three months early and prescribes protective measures for future springtime fishing seasons, when the greatest number of whales are present off the California coast.”

A discussion of the settlement agreement is expected to continue in the commission’s Marine Resources Committee. Part of the conversation will focus on what manner the settlement agreement would regulate the recreational crab fishery, if at all. Further details of the settlement agreement will be fleshed out in upcoming coverage, here in FishRap and The Log.

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