Crab Season Cut Short To Protect Whales

Apr 8, 2019

The commercial crab fishing season is being cut nearly in half this year. It ends statewide one week from today. The goal is to prevent whale and sea turtle entanglements in the crab fishing gear.

On a dock at Moss Landing Harbor, Roger Whitney looks into a bin full of Dungeness crabs.

“We bring them in off the boats and then we put them in nice fresh saltwater. And then we add oxygen to them, so they stay nice and lively for the market,” Whitney says.

Whitney owns Bay Fresh Seafoods. He buys seafood off boats that pull right up to his dock.  Then, he sells it to restaurants and fish markets.

He won’t be selling crab much longer. The commercial Dungeness crab fishing season is ending three months early.

Whitney says it’ll be a financial hit to fishermen. But he adds there hasn’t been a lot of crab this year.

“I don't think it's going to bother us as much as if it was just a real bang up season you know and had a lot of crabs out here, then that would really hurt,” says Whitney.

The early closure is part of a legal settlement. The nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity sued the California Department of Fish and Wildlife over a sharp increase in whale entanglements along the West Coast.

Catherine Kilduff is a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.

“So historically, up until about 2014, there were on average around a dozen whale entanglements reported each year. And at the peak of the reports in 2016, there were 71 whale entanglements,” Kilduff says.

She says crab pots can cause entanglements because of their design. The heavy pots sit on the ocean floor and are connected to a buoy on the surface via a vertical rope.

“This line can get wrapped around either the flippers or the fluke of the whale. If it's through their mouth, that can prevent feeding and it can hinder their migrations,” Kilduff says.

According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the season’s closure on April 15 coincides with the beginning of more whale migrations through the Monterey Bay.

“We see increasing numbers of whales through the spring, summer months. And so by removing all of that commercial gear out of the water, it should in theory reduce the risk to whales,” says Ryan Bartling, Environmental Scientist for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

A group of environmentalists and fishermen called the Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group is meeting to discuss best practices for reducing entanglements and ways to improve crab fishing gear.

Bartling says their work will be important in the face of changing ocean conditions. During a marine heat wave known as the ‘warm blob’ in late 2015 and in 2016, scientists say whales came closer inshore to feed. That’s where many crab pots are set, so the risk of entanglements increased.

The whales are moving, seeking out forage, bringing them closer inshore where they may have not been before. So, we've seen that increase in entanglement risk and actual entanglements,” Bartling says.

As part of the settlement, the Dungeness crab fishing season could end as early as April 1 next year for the Monterey Bay area.

For fishermen and those in the seafood industry like Roger Whitney, that could take a toll on business, especially if it’s a good year for crab.

“I’ve seen the good times in the fishing industry and I’ve seen it all taken away from regulations,” says Whitney. “We would have a lucrative business if they would just cut back on these regulations.”