California state officials have released a final rule to reduce the risk of endangered whale and sea turtle entanglement in commercial Dungeness crab gear. The new regulations, which went into effect on November 1, were prompted by steep annual increases in reported whale entanglements and a lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity.
“It’s good to see California finally taking whale entanglements seriously,” said Kristen Monsell, the Center’s oceans legal director, in a statement. “This new system should reduce the risk crab gear poses to whales and sea turtles. But we’re disappointed that officials didn’t do more to encourage a conversion to ropeless gear, which is the only way to truly eliminate the threat of entanglement for these ocean animals.”
Entanglements in the thick ropes that are connected to heavy commercial Dungeness crab traps injure and kill whales and sea turtles. The ropes cut into the animals’ flesh, sap their strength and lead to drowning. Each entanglement of a humpback whale, blue whale or leatherback sea turtle, besides causing needless suffering and loss of life, violates the federal Endangered Species Act.
The state’s new “Risk Assessment and Mitigation Program” evaluates the likely presence of whales and sea turtles, among other factors, to determine if mitigation measures, such as shortening the season or closing an area to crab gear, are needed to reduce the risk of entanglements. The new rule also allows ropeless gear to be used during a closure occurring on or after April 1, but not during other parts of the season, as the Center has called for to better incentivize its adoption.
A lawsuit filed in 2017 by the Center led to an agreement last year with the state and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association that ended the last two crab seasons early to avoid the spring whale migration and required adoption of new regulations to prevent entanglements before the new crab season begins later this month.
The National Marine Fisheries Service confirmed 26 whale entanglements off the West Coast in 2019, three of which involved California commercial Dungeness crab gear and 15 of which could not be pegged to a particular fishery. Of the 26 confirmed whale entanglements, 17 were humpback whales, eight were gray whales and one was a minke whale. An endangered leatherback sea turtle was also found dead and entangled in rock crab gear.
The Center filed its lawsuit after whale entanglements off California’s coast broke records for three straight years, peaking with 66 reported entanglements in 2016. Of the 29 cases where the gear could be identified, 22 were commercial Dungeness crab gear from California.
In November 2018, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife announced it would seek federal permits for allowing its crab fishery to harm endangered whales and sea turtles. The RAMP rulemaking is part of the process for obtaining that federal authorization.