The science of sustainable seafood, explained

Fears of whale entanglements close Dungeness crab fishery…again

Pot fisheries around the world are contending with heightened whale entanglement concerns. Last year footage was released of an entangled whale dying in the lines of an octopus pot off the coast of South Africa, which inspired a petition to close the fishery. This year, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ (DFO) Canada announced the first season-long fishing closure in the Gulf of St. Lawrence due to sightings of the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

Almost one year after we spoke to California crabbers about the 2019 Dungeness fishery closure, on April 15th the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) director, Charlton Bonham, announced that the fishery would close two months early, on May 15th—again to avoid humpback whale entanglements. This year, though, California fishermen had 30 days to get their crab pots out of the water, a safer time period than the 2-3 weeks last year. There is also optimism for a strong king salmon season to replace some of the Dungeness fishing effort, which typically winds down in May and June anyway.

But this year, COVID-19 has ravaged California’s coastal economies that rely heavily on fishing and tourism. Crab prices have been exceptionally low in response to foodservice shutdowns, and just as Asian markets were starting re-open, demanding California Dungeness crab again, the announcement of the closure came from the CDFW. As Ben Platt, president of the California Coast Crab Association, told National Fishermen in April “we need a full season or we go out of business.”

Consecutive early crab closures set a troubling precedent for the viability of spring and early summer fishing in the years ahead. In its April 15th press release the CDFW said, “Aerial surveys conducted by CDFW on April 7, 2020, showed Humpback whale presence off the California coast in the Gulf of the Farallones, which overlaps with the fishing grounds. Additional observation data from Monterey Bay and the Farallon Islands indicate an increase in the number of Humpback whales, a signal indicating the start of the spring migration to California waters to forage.” But according to Platt, with less than 1,800 crab pots in the water at the time of the closure announcement, “statistical chance of one of those whales getting entangled is almost impossible,” said Platt.

New management rules offer positives and negatives

On the day of the closure, May 15th, the CDFW released a set of complex new rules for managing the Dungeness fishery. It was encouraging to see a new response from the state, after a quiet surrendering to the Center for Biological Diversity, who initiated this string of early shutdowns last year after a long lawsuit with the state about its management of marine mammal safety.

The good news for the crab fleet is that these new rules allow for more targeted actions and risk assessments around entanglement concerns; for example, smaller portions of the ocean would be shut down instead of large swaths of fishing territory like the last two seasons.

The bad news for the crab fleet is that fly-overs and surveys will continue to be the primary determining factor in their fishery’s fate and the burden of proof will be to repeatedly show that no whales are in the fishing areas. That effort did not work in their favor this year or last, based on the weight given to individual reports in lieu of more comprehensive survey methods. For fishermen and conservationists that were proponents of rope-less fishing gear and other new emerging technologies to reduce entanglements on the water, this decision might reduce the incentive to invest heavily in those endeavors.

Additional frustration for the fleet stems from a comparison between the humpback whales of concern near California and other whale entanglement examples. The Canadian snow crab fleet must avoid the approximately 400 right whales remaining in the world. No one has argued against the urgency to close that fishery. For comparison, the California Dungeness crab fleet is avoiding a “threatened” humpback whale population from Mexico and an “endangered” population from Costa Rica. But globally, 9 of the 14 distinct humpback whale populations are considered “not at risk” by NOAA.

Map of humpback whale populations.
The 14 humpback whale distinct population segments and their status. From NOAA.

According to NOAA, since 2017 there have been 48 marine entanglement incidents tracked across Baja California, California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. 19 were associated with commercial crab gear.

This is not to minimize the need to protect humpback whales off the coast of California, or to suggest fishery closures for whale entanglements are only appropriate when the most severely endangered species are involved. But the impact of the California Dungeness crab closure on severely strained coastal economies will be heavily scrutinized by fishermen and their communities.

Jack Cheney

Jack Cheney

Jack has sourced, sold, cooked, and sustainably certified seafood over the past 9 years. In addition to his contributions to Sustainable Fisheries UW, he is working to connect chefs with US fishermen to create more value for both ends of the supply chain. He earned a Master's in Marine Affairs from the University of Washington in 2015.

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