Beginning in 2015, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) has been working with a diverse coalition of commercial fishing representatives, environmental organizations, scientists and agency partners to reduce the risk of whale and sea turtle entanglements in commercial fishing gear used by the Dungeness crab fleet. CDFW’s recent management efforts under the Risk Assessment and Mitigation Program (RAMP), supported by the work of the Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group, correlates with a drop in marine life entanglements from a high of 22 confirmed entanglements involving Humpback whales, Blue whales or Leatherback sea turtles in 2016 to zero confirmed entanglements this season.
Recent survey data indicate an increase in Humpback whales returning from their winter breeding grounds to California fishing grounds. In consideration of this and all available data and recommendations from staff, the Working Group and other stakeholders, CDFW Director Charlton H. Bonham has assessed entanglement risk under the RAMP and announced the closure of the commercial Dungeness crab fishery statewide beginning at noon on June 1, 2021.
“It has been a very difficult year for many in our fishing communities and I recognize that every day of lost fishing further impacts families and small businesses,” said Director Bonham. “I acknowledge the sacrifices and resilience of California’s fishermen and women and look forward to continuing to work with the fleet and the Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group to minimize entanglement risk while maximizing opportunities.”
All commercial crab traps must be removed from the fishing grounds by the June 1 closure date. While this closure shortens the season by four weeks in the central management zone and six weeks in the northern management zone, the RAMP regulations are designed to minimize risk and provide for a long-term viable commercial fishery. In addition, Director Bonham has authorized the Lost and Abandoned Gear Program to begin removing commercial Dungeness crab traps left in the water after the close of the season on June 7, 2021 at 6 a.m.
The RAMP regulations anticipate continued fishing during any closure after April 1 with the use of authorized Alternative Gear types (for example, pop-up gear), which are approved based on criteria outlined in the RAMP regulation. At this time, there are no authorized Alternative Gears, but CDFW looks forward to working with gear developers and authorizing gear for use in future situations where risk is elevated.
Since late October 2020, CDFW has conducted 10 risk assessments to evaluate entanglement risk during the 2020-21 fishing season. While entanglements in any given year are likely due to a combination of human and environmental factors, CDFW is confident the programs it has developed with its partners will help continue the trend of decreasing entanglements. Improved ocean conditions, a high level of engagement by the commercial fishing fleet and regulatory changes have likely attributed to the reduction in entanglements. CDFW, the commercial Dungeness crab fleet and partners have been working through the California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group to develop and implement measures to assess, manage and reduce risk of entanglement of whales and sea turtles protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. In addition to a draft Conservation Plan (currently in development) and RAMP regulations, these measures include development of a Best Practices Guide, implementation of a Standardized Gear Marking Program for trap gear fisheries, supporting alternative gear testing, implementation of a regulation limiting surface gear and a Lost or Abandoned Commercial Dungeness Crab Trap Retrieval Program.