Conservation groups file petition, lawsuit to protect whales from crab line entanglement

By Bay City News Service 

As the commercial Dungeness crab season opened off the San Francisco Bay Area coast today, two conservation groups asked a federal agency to take steps to protect whales from being entangled in crab pot lines.

The Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network submitted a petition asking the National Marine Fisheries Service to designate the California fishery as a Category I fishery, meaning that it's most dangerous to imperiled whales.

Under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Category I designation would require the service to take steps to reduce accidental harm to whales and to help their stock recover.

Fisheries service spokeswoman Kate Brogan said, "We are evaluating the petition at this time."

Entanglements in ropes attached to heavy crab pots on the ocean floor can cause whales to drown or die of infection or starvation. Others may drag the ropes and pots for hundreds of miles during their migration north and suffer impairment of breathing, feeding and reproduction, according to 
the petition.

The center said the number of known whale entanglements off the West Coast has increased in the past several years - from fewer than 10 per year before 2014 to 30 in 2014, 62 in 2015 and 71 last year.

"After watching the number of tangled-up whales break records the last three years, officials need to finally act to protect these magnificent animals," said CBD attorney Kate Monsell.

The whales at risk include humpback, blue, killer and gray whales, the petition said.

The commercial Dungeness crab season set by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife began today for the area south of Sonoma-Mendocino county border.

In a related move, the two conservation groups sued the California agency in federal court in San Francisco on Oct. 3 for allegedly violating the U.S. Endangered Species Act in the way it manages commercial Dungeness crab fishing.

The lawsuit claims the state agency is obligated under the federal law to obtain a permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service for the accidental taking, or harming, of species of whales and sea turtles that have been designated as endangered or threatened.

A take permit would enable the federal service to set conditions that would ensure the species' survival and require the development of a habitat conservation plan.

The species protected by the law include two types of threatened or endangered humpback whales, endangered blue whales and endangered leatherback sea turtles, the lawsuit says.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesman Peter Tira said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

The agency must file a response to the lawsuit by Friday. U.S. District Judge Maxine Chesney will hold a case management hearing in January.