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California Proposes Regulations to Prevent Whale Entanglements in Crab Gear
by Center for Biological Diversity
Monday May 18th, 2020 2:09 PM
SACRAMENTO, Calif., May 15, 2020 — California state officials released a proposed rule today to reduce the number of endangered whales and sea turtles that get entangled in commercial Dungeness crab gear. The Risk Assessment and Mitigation Program (RAMP) was prompted by steep annual increases in reported whale entanglements and a lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity.
“California is finally taking whale entanglements seriously,” said Kristen Monsell, the Center’s oceans legal director. “Crab gear can be deadly to whales, and this system should reduce the risk. But it should do more to encourage ropeless gear, the only way to truly eliminate the entanglement threat to endangered whales and sea turtles.”

RAMP was developed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and its California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group, which was formed in 2015 to address entanglements that were killing and injuring endangered whales. The program assesses the likely presence of whales and sea turtles, among other factors, to determine if management measures, such as shortening the season or closing an area to crab gear, are needed to reduce the risk of entanglements.

Entanglements in thick ropes connected to heavy commercial Dungeness crab traps cause injuries and death of 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 violates the federal Endangered Species Act.

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 crab season on April 15 in 2019 and laid out conditions for future closures. It called for this year’s season to end on April 1 of 2020, but that was delayed to May 15 after the department determined the entanglement risk was low but rising.

The agreement also called for a system for assessing risks to whales and triggering area closures when necessary, and it requires the department to promote the testing and use of ropeless fishing gear in areas otherwise closed to crab gear. New ropeless traps designs don’t include vertical ropes in the water for day or weeks.

In its most recent report on West Coast whale entanglements, the National Marine Fisheries Service confirmed at least 26 whale entanglements 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.

In November 2018 the department announced it would seek federal permits for allowing its crab fishery to harm endangered whales and sea turtles. Today’s rulemaking announcement is part of the process for obtaining that federal authorization.

The department is accepting comments on the proposed rule for 45 days. A virtual public hearing on the proposed rule is scheduled for June 29.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
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