California Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck BonhamÂ orderedÂ the stateâ€™s commercial Dungeness crab fishery to close at noon on June 1 to avoid entangling endangered humpback whales now migrating along Californiaâ€™s coastline. The season typically ends June 30 in central California and July 15 in Northern California.
The closure order was based on data from the stateâ€™s new Risk Assessment and Mitigation Program. That program was developed in line with a legal agreement with the Center for Biological Diversity, which sued the department in 2017 over increasing whale entanglements.
Before Bonhamâ€™s decision, the Center urged him to close the fishery earlier than June 1 but to allow the use of innovative ropeless fishing gear. Ropeless or â€œpop-upâ€ gear uses lift bags or remotely released lines and buoys to bring crab traps to the surface without ropes running through the water for days or weeks.
â€œItâ€™s good to see California finally acting to avoid whale entanglements. But weâ€™re disappointed state officials were so slow to take meaningful action and havenâ€™t acted on the promise of ropeless gear to let crabbers keep crabbing,â€ said Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center. â€œWhales will always be threatened by a fishery with thousands of heavy vertical ropes in the water all season. Weâ€™ve been pushing for a conversion to ropeless gear, which the state’s fish and wildlife department should embrace more than it has.â€
Entanglements in thick ropes connected to heavy commercial Dungeness crab traps injure and kill whales and sea turtles. The ropes cut into the animalsâ€™ flesh, sap their strength and lead to drowning. Each entanglement of a humpback whale, blue whale or leatherback sea turtle violates the federal Endangered Species Act.
The Center co-sponsored this yearâ€™s Whale Entanglement Prevention Act (Assembly Bill 534), which would have mandated the conversion of Californiaâ€™s trap fisheries to ropeless gear by the end of 2025. Author Rob Bonta pulled the bill when he was appointed as the stateâ€™s new attorney general, but the Center remains committed to advocating for the conversion to ropeless gear.
The closure decision was based on aÂ recommendationÂ from department staff on May 12. The departmentâ€™s assessment reported that, in early May,Â 60 humpbackÂ whales were seen in Monterey Bay on the same day,Â 45 humpback whalesÂ were seen off Northern California over two days and that these numbers are expected to increase in the coming weeks as whales continue to migrate to feed off California. The departmentâ€™s assessment also indicated that thousands upon thousands of crab traps are still in the water, putting whales at risk of entanglement.