Crabbers will be required to pull their pots out early this year as a result of a settlement agreement between the Center for Biological Diversity and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife over whale and sea turtle entanglements.

Subject to court approval, the settlement agreement between the nonprofit conservation organization and CDFW closes the statewide commercial Dungeness crab season on April 15, three months early, according to a joint press release issued Tuesday.

The agreement establishes a Dungeness crab Fishing Gear Working Group and requires CDFW to pursue a federal incidental take permit, according to the press release. It also outlines several other protections against the entanglements of endangered humpback and blue whales and leatherback sea turtles, according to Kristen Monsell, legal director of the oceans program at the Center for Biological Diversity.

“One of the reasons we filed this lawsuit was because we received news from the federal government that the California commercial Dungeness crab fishery was entangling whales at record-breaking numbers,” she said, adding that the lawsuit, filed in October 2017, alleged that CDFW was violating the federal endangered species act due to the entanglements.

“In 2016 the fishery entangled at least 19 humpback whales, two blue whales and one leatherback sea turtle,” Monsell said. “Those are just the numbers that we know about. It’s likely that the numbers are much higher because not all entanglements are observed and documented. The numbers of entanglements off the West Coast generally have been incredibly high over the course of the last two years.”

The settlement agreement outlines several protections against whale and sea turtle entanglements. This includes requiring the department to issue a districtwide closure to commercial crab fishing in the event of one confirmed endangered animal entangled in Dungeness crab gear or if there are two or more confirmed entanglements of endangered animals in unknown gear.

The presence of 20 or more endangered whales in a NOAA survey or a running average of five or more endangered whales over a one-week period would prompt a districtwide closure, according to the settlement agreement.

For CDFW fishing districts in the Mendocino and Monterey Bay areas and south, the 2020 crab season will close April 1, 2020. The director, in consultation with the Working Group, may lift that closure, but only if the risk is low.

Also beginning April 1, 2021 and each season thereafter until the department obtains an incidental take permit, the districts near Mendocino and Monterey Bay and points south will only be open to ropeless fishing gear, according to the agreement.

The settlement agreement also requires CDFW to issue a series of rule makings, one of which is establishing an assessment process to determine if there is a high risk of whales and sea turtles being entangled as well as management measures to take if the risk is high, Monsell said. This needs to be in place by November 2020, she said.

CDFW must also establish a comprehensive lost gear retrieval program by November 2019 and submit a habitat conservation plan by May 2020, Monsell said.

“That is the first step in obtaining an incidental take permit from the federal government to authorize the entanglement of whales and sea turtles through the operation of the Dungeness crab fishery,” she said. “Right now, every entanglement of a humpback whale and a leatherback sea turtle is unlawful under the Endangered Species Act because the department doesn’t have a permit or a mitigation against the risk of entanglement to these species.”

The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, which represents crabbers, intervened in the lawsuit, according to the press release.

In November 2018, CDFW announced it would seek a federal permit under the Endangered Species Act to address protected species interactions with the crab fleet, according to the press release.

On Tuesday, Del Norte County Supervisor Gerry Hemmingsen said he recently sat through a Whale Entanglement Evaluation Team call about the lawsuit and settlement agreement. Filing an incidental take permit takes about 14 months to “go through the hoops,” he said. Filing the application then takes about a year, he said.

“They did have a settlement conference that was a pretty closed item, not a lot of information came out of it,” Hemmingsen said. “That’s been a long drawn-out process, but everybody’s been pretty tight-lipped about it.”

Rick Shepherd, president of the Del Norte Commercial Fisherman’s Marketing Association and a commissioner with the Crescent City Harbor District, said Tuesday fisherman’s marketing associations don’t want representatives of individual associations to comment just yet.

“We’ve been told the season is going to close April 15, that’s coast wide, the state of California. Other than that, we don’t really know the specifics,” Shepherd said. “We’re assuming you can’t unload crab after the 15th, but we kind of heard they were going to be lenient on guys getting their gear (out) of the water because it’s such short notice.”

In response to the crab season’s early closure, the Crescent City Harbor District will meet on Thursday to discuss giving crabbers an extra six weeks after April 15 to remove their crab pots without issuing fees.

“We can’t lessen the blow any,” Harbormaster Charlie Helms said. “But we don’t want to jump on their misfortune and start charging them.”

The Crescent City Harbor District will meet at 2 p.m. Thursday at 101 Citizens Dock Road in Crescent City. For more information, visit www.ccharbor.com.

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com .

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