California crab fisheries to close early to protect whales

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A legal settlement announced Tuesday adds a new layer of protection for the increasing number of large whales and sea turtles who become entangled in Dungeness crab fishing gear.

California crab fisheries will close for the season in April when whales are feeding off the state's coast as part of an effort to keep Dungeness crab fishery gear from killing the endangered wildlife.    

Crabbing season doesn’t normally end until July, but the April 15 closure is now required under a settlement reached between the Center for Biological Diversity, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.

The Center for Biological Diversity, a national, nonprofit conservation organization,sued the state wildlife department last October, claiming it was liable for a drastic increase in entanglements of endangered whales and sea turtles because it oversees operations of the fishery off California's coast.

“As I’ve said many times, no one wants whale entanglements to happen,” said Charlton H. Bonham, director of the Fish and Wildlife Department in a statement. “This agreement represents hours of intense negotiation to help ensure they don’t happen and support the resiliency of the crab fishery in the long-run."

Whale entanglements on the West Coast have broken records in recent years because climate change is pushing the mammals closer to shore --and fishing gear-- in their search for food.

A preliminary count for 2018 shows 45 whale entanglements on the West Coast compared with 31 confirmed entanglements in 2017. Between 2000 and 2014, the West Coast saw an average of 10 entanglements per year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

The accidental entanglements can gouge whales' flesh and mouth, weaken the animals, drown them, or kill them painfully, over months.

“This (settlement) is great news for whales and sea turtles fighting extinction off California’s coast,” said Kristen Monsell, a Center for Biological Diversity attorney. “The settlement will reduce serious threats from crab gear to these beautiful and highly endangered animals. This agreement is a turning point that gets us closer to zero entanglements and a healthy ocean.”  

Noah Oppenheim, the executive director of the fishermen’s association, said the settlement protects both whales and crab fishing operations under the Endangered Species Act.

“The past several years have been extraordinarily challenging for fishing families, and the actions we’re taking here are no exception,'' Oppenheim said. "But in the end, we’re going to emerge together with a resilient, prosperous, and protective fishery that will continue to feed California and the nation.” 

The settlement still needs final court approval.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.