MONTEREY – With the higher number of humpback whales descending on central coast waters and fearing they could get tangled in crab lines, state officials said this week they would close the season Dungeness crab on June 1, four weeks earlier.
The California Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, which regulates crabbing in the state, released the decision on Tuesday following agency director Charlton Bonham’s assessment of the risk of entanglement in the critically endangered humpback whales and leatherback turtles.
The shutdown will begin statewide at noon on June 1.
âIt has been a very difficult year for many of our fishing communities and I recognize that every day of fishing lost has an additional impact on families and small businesses,â Bonham said in a statement.
He added that he wanted to continue working with industry and environmental groups that are part of the crab gear working group to minimize the risk of entanglement while maintaining a crab fishing industry. dynamic in the state.
Estimates of the size of the crab fishing industry in California vary, but the consensus is that it is between $ 50 million and $ 100 million per year. It can fluctuate from year to year depending on the length of the season and the market rate per pound for the catch.
Whales are also part of the economy of Monterey Bay with a large number of whale watching boats catering to the influx of tourists each year.
The task force includes a number of interests, including the commercial fishing industry, environmental groups, scientists, and state and federal agencies. The intention is to work collaboratively to find ways to reduce the risk of entanglement while supporting the livelihoods of crabbers along the coast.
Ryan Bartling, senior environmental scientist at Fish and Wildlife, said Thursday the determination was based on assessments by agency staff of the number of whales moving in certain areas along the coast. Basically, the more whales there are, the greater the risk of entanglement.
The central coast is in a critical fishing area (Fish and Wildlife Zone 7) that stretches roughly from Point Arena to Monterey.
âThe manager looked at a number of factors, including the number of animals in a fishing area,â Bartling said. “The number (of whales) in Monterey Bay has exceeded the trigger point.”
The science is manifold, but in general, climate change affects the food supply of humpback whales, mainly krill, where whales have historically fed further out to sea. But warmer water and its lack of nutrients have depleted the krill population, sending the whales closer to shore to feed on anchovies, causing them to become entangled in crab lines.
The crab pots rest on the ocean floor near the shore and are connected to the buoys by long ropes. Fishermen check crab traps by locating their buoys and hoisting them aboard via the ropes.
When whales hunt anchovies closer to shore, they can get tangled up in these crab lines. In some cases, the lines cut the flesh of the whale which becomes infected and can lead to death. In other cases, when the lines are taken into the mouths of whales – they open their mouths to feed – they can affect the whale’s ability to feed and, in extreme cases, lead to starvation.
Dr Jarrod Santora, a time-splitting researcher between UC Santa Cruz and the Southwest Fisheries Science Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said in an interview with the Monterey Herald last year that a warming event of the ocean in 2014-2016 created a dynamic that pushed hungry whales close to crab gear, causing a 400% increase in humpback entanglements.
Although the 2014 warming event is considered an anomaly, Santora warned that it is an event that will likely recur more frequently as the water temperature in the North Pacific warms.
âIt’s not a question of if, rather a question of when we see this in the future,â Santora said.
Ben Platt, president of the California Coast Crab Association, asked Thursday how many whales got close enough to get tangled in crab lines. He said the association represents some 550 boats along the coast and that they report the humpbacks remain offshore with healthy krill populations.
âThis closure will be a great success for those who rely on the normal crab season for their livelihood,â said Platt, a second generation crab fisherman from Crescent City. âThe closure seemed arbitrary and there was no reason to close it early. They take extremely careful steps because they don’t want to risk a single entanglement.
Dr Geoff Shester, senior scientist at nonprofit environmental group Oceana and a member of the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife task force, said the season closures were having a positive impact on tangles.
âThe new system of closing schedules and zones is working; there have been no confirmed entanglements of whales or sea turtles in commercial Dungeness crab gear from California this season, âChester said in an emailed statement. âWe congratulate the Ministry of Fisheries and Wildlife for collecting and acting on the real-time database showing when and where the whales returned to feed.â
No entanglements were reported during this crab season which started in November, compared to 22 entanglements in 2016.
The leatherback turtles referenced by Shester are extremely endangered and migrate throughout the Pacific Ocean from their nesting grounds in Indonesia. There, the turtles lose their habitat due to development and their numbers are threatened by a market for their eggs. Turtles make their way to the California coast for food, including the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
Platt, the head of the Crab Fishing Association, said the industry was taking strong action to avoid entanglements, such as making sure none of their boats left “ghost lines” or unused gear that moved away from their fishing grounds without surveillance.
There has been ongoing research on crab traps that do not have a pot buoy rope. Instead, the ropes are coiled up next to the pot and a signal from the boat releases a buoy that surfaces for the boat to hoist up.
Platt said these technologies, when they work, are prohibitively expensive.