Recognizing they had the "rug pulled out from under them" due to the outcome of a lawsuit over whale and sea turtle entanglements, Crescent City Harbor commissioners have given the local Dungeness fleet extra time to store their crab pots for free at the port.

Commissioners voted 4-0-1 Thursday to allow fishermen to store their pots for free from April 1 to May 15. Commissioner Rick Shepherd, who is also president of the Crescent City Commercial Fisherman's Marketing Association, was absent.

The Harbor District's decision comes after the Center for Biological Diversity reached a settlement agreement with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to end the current commercial Dungeness season statewide three months early on April 15.

According to Crescent City Harbormaster Charlie Helms, the port's ordinance and fee schedule typically gives commercial crabbers 30 days after the close of the season to store their pots for free as they retrieve their gear from the water.

After that 30-day period, commercial fishermen must pay about $150 per month to store their gear in numbered spaces at the harbor, according to the fee schedule. The harbormaster can choose to extend this period without a vote from the commission, Helms said, but he knew that commissioners would be concerned about the settlement agreement's impact on the commercial fleet.

"This is a big event," Helms said of the settlement agreement. "And we could have administratively gone 'that's the way it is,' but we want to get support out to our tenants."

According to Board President Jim Ramsey, fishermen can get an assigned spot to store their gear from the harbor district office. At that point, storage would be free until May 15, he noted.

Helms said the area typically used to store gear must be cleared on May 15 due to construction.

In addition to closing the 2019 season early, the agreement between the Center for Biological Diversity and CDFW establishes a Dungeness crab Fishing Gear Working Group and requires the department to pursue and obtain a federal incidental take permit, according to a joint press release from CDFW and the nonprofit conservation organization.

It outlines several other protections against the entanglement of endangered humpback and blue whales and leatherback sea turtles, including requiring the department to issue a districtwide closure in the event an endangered animal is entangled in Dungeness crab gear or if two or more endangered species are entangled in unknown gear, according to the settlement agreement.

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

The settlement agreement also requires CDFW to establish a process to determine if there is a high risk of whales and sea turtles being entangled and to develop management measures to mitigate that risk, Center for Biological Diversity representative Kristen Monsell told the Triplicate on Tuesday.

Commercial fisherman John Beardon thanked the commission for its decision on Thursday, noting local crabbers have faced a plethora of challenges over the years.

"We appreciate it," he said.

In other matters, Loren Brown, another commercial fisherman, urged harbor commissioners to weigh in as the Pacific Fishery Management Council goes through the process of setting seasons for the local salmon fishery.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council and its advisory bodies will meet April 9-16 in Rohnert Park. Key items on the agenda include adopting final management measures for the 2019 ocean salmon fishery; adopting final groundfish in-season adjustments for 2019 and considering groundfish fishery mitigation measures for endangered seabirds and salmon.

Brown said comments on the salmon fishery and other items on the Pacific Fishery Management Council Agenda would be accepted through April 1.

However, the Harbor Commission's legal counsel, Autumn Luna, said since the next regular meeting isn't until April 2, commissioners couldn't weigh in on the council's agenda on behalf of the Crescent City Harbor District. Local elected officials, as well as the harbormaster, can offer comments about matters the Pacific Fishery Management Council is considering as individual citizens, Luna said.

For more information about the Pacific Fishery Management Council's April meetings, visit www.pcouncil.org.

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