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Crab fishery shut down as whales recover

Crab pots and a gray tub filled with crabs.
California Department of Fish and Wildlife
California Department of Fish and Wildlife
Crab pots and crabs

Five humpback whales have gotten entangled in crab gear, leading the CDFW to close the fishery.

April 14, 2022 — The California Deptartment of Fish and Wildlife has announced that the commercial Dungeness crab fishery in the entire state of California will close two months early, at least until mid-November, due to five humpback whale entanglements in crab gear along various parts of the coast. The commercial fishery from the Sonoma-Mendocino line to Mexico closed last Friday, and the rest of the commercial fishery, from there to Oregon, will close next Wednesday.

The CDFW is also asking recreational crab fishermen to remove their traps from the water as soon as possible, but no later than April 24th. Recreational fishermen will still be allowed to use hoop nets and snares.

Ryan Bartling is a senior environmental scientist with the CDFW marine region. With five entanglements in about a month and a half, “We are in uncharted territory,” he conceded. Three of the whales were confirmed to have been entangled in California commercial Dungeness crab gear, while the other two were not identifiable, but “the gear is consistent with what could be California commercial Dungeness crab gear,” he said.

Anna Neumann is the harbormaster at Noyo Harbor in Fort Bragg. She paid for her masters degree in fishery policy partly by fishing for Dungeness crab. Changes in naturally occurring domoic acid, which doesn’t harm shellfish but is toxic to humans, have shortened many but not all of the crab seasons since 2015. And whale entanglements do appear to be increasing.

“There are several theories out there as to why that is,” she reflected. One is that increased reporting means, “We simply have more eyes on the water. We’re looking now, whereas perhaps before we haven’t looked in past years. Or, with a recovering humpback population, “More whales are coming into the gear. Or it could really just be that we’re fishing more heavily, and the entanglements are just a direct increase of the overlap between the whales and the later season periods that are starting to happen as domoic acid is pushing seasons later and then the closures are kind of truncating the season into this very small period of time.”

Bartling says new types of gear are being developed to reduce the risk of entanglements, like weak-link technology, that would cause lines to break if whales encounter them. There is also a kind of “ropeless gear,” which does have ropes and buoys. But the gear would be stowed on the ocean floor inside the traps, to be released according to a timer or remote control.

Neumann says the biggest problem with ropeless gear is that fishermen rely on surface buoys, which are attached to the traps on the ocean floor with long lines, to let them know where other crews’ traps are. That’s important information, because if crews drop their equipment on a set of gear that’s already set, the two sets of gear could get entangled with each other, causing the loss of expensive assets, litter in the ocean, and traps that continue “ghost fishing.”

“Even just tending your gear,” Bartling says, “or day tending, where they go out and set the pots and pull them in before they leave the fishing grounds…would probably help minimize the risk as well.”

Neumann added that, “There are other ideas that have been floated through” a Dungeness crab working group that includes crab fishermen and CDFW scientists. Some are as simple as changing the color of the lines, since whales are colorblind to certain colors, and can’t see the blue or pink line used by crab fishermen.

In the meantime, Dungeness crab fishing will not start up again until mid-November or early December. Neumann said fishermen based in Noyo Harbor will be doing “a little bit of everything,” depending on what kind of permits they have. She expects some will fish for salmon in California, Oregon, and Washington, bottom fish, go after open-access rockfish, or open-access lingcod and blackcod. “So they’ll all pivot into their respective fisheries,” she predicted. “And it’s really important to realize that the top two fisheries in California are Dungeness crab and market squid,” which isin Southern California, so, “They can’t pivot into the other top California fishery,” she concluded.

Meanwhile, conditions for whales are looking up. “Their populations are recovering,” Bartling said. “There’s good foraging opportunity for them right now. There’s a lot of data around anchovies and sardines. The NOAA flight indicated there were some humpbacks foraging for krill at the shelf break. So: good news for whales. I would expect to see more whales beginning to arrive over the next few weeks.”

Local News
Sarah Reith is the lead reporter for KZYX News. She joined the KZYX News team in 2017, and covers local politics, water, law enforcement and the arts in Mendocino County.