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Dungeness Crab Commercial Season Update

Today, California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) Director Charlton H. Bonham issued a preliminary determination that commercial Dungeness crab fishing in the Central Management Area (CMA) (Districts 10, 17 and south) poses a significant risk of marine life entanglement. The anticipated management response by Director Bonham is a May 15 closure of California Dungeness crab fishery south of the Mendocino/Sonoma county line.

On April 9, 2020 the California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group (Working Group) met to review available data and provide a recommendation to the Director based on the Risk Assessment and Mitigation Program (RAMP) framework. A majority of the Working Group members determined all four RAMP factors remain low relative to entanglement risk in the CMA at this moment in time in early- to mid-April, while a minority assessed risk as moderate due to the increasing numbers of Humpback whales within the fishing grounds. The Working Group reached consensus in determining low risk for the Northern Management Area (NMA) for all four RAMP factors. Based on this assessment of risk, a majority of the Working Group did not recommend any additional mandatory management measures at this time for either the CMA or NMA. A minority recommended a precautionary management approach in the CMA.

Neither the majority nor minority recommendations dispute that whales are currently in their annual migration up the California coast, and that it is a matter of time before larger congregations are likely in the commercial crab fishing areas.

Based on independent analysis of risk factors for marine life entanglement, CDFW has assessed the risk of entanglement in the CMA as elevated. This assessment is based on the increasing numbers of Humpback whales observed in the fishing grounds. In addition, risk will continue to increase based on historical whale and sea turtle migration patterns. During the spring and summer months Humpback whales, Blue whales and Pacific Leatherback sea turtles return to forage in areas that overlap with commercial Dungeness crab fishing.

As a result, CDFW is recommending a closure of the commercial Dungeness crab fishery in the CMA on May 15, 2020 at 11:59 p.m. to help minimize risk of entanglement. It is important to clarify that CDFW is not recommending any closure between today and May 15, covering the next 30 days. During the Working Group, representatives from industry advised that they would require 30 days to remove fishing gear in a timely and safe manner, given challenges under COVID-19 and weather predictions. Targeting a May 15 end to this season allows orderly removal of gear while continued fishing opportunity would exist and anticipates closure before the presence of marine mammals increases more. This approach also allows 30 days more fishing than last year’s commercial Dungeness crab season.

This recommendation is further supported by the frequent occurrence of spring whale entanglements. Since 2013 there have been a total of 21 Humpback whale entanglements observed from March through June. All years except 2013 and 2019 recorded confirmed entanglements with commercial Dungeness crab gear during this period, noting that the season closed on April 15 in 2019.

Under the authority of Fish and Game Code section 8276.1(c)(1), the Director may restrict take of commercial Dungeness crab if the fishery is being conducted in a way that poses a significant risk of marine life entanglement. As required in Fish and Game Code section 8276.1(c)(4), the Director is providing 48 hours’ notice to the California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group and other stakeholders prior to making a final determination.

Director Bonham will consider any recommendations or new information provided by 5:30 p.m. on Friday, April 17, 2020. Anyone with recommendations and information related to this preliminary determination should submit it to whalesafefisheries@wildlife.ca.gov by that deadline.

Despite this preliminary determination for the commercial Dungeness crab fishery in the CMA, CDFW understands the challenges faced by California’s commercial fishing industry during these difficult times. CDFW is committed to working with our industry partners to maximize their ability to safely deliver fresh, sustainably caught, seafood during the COVID-19 crisis. Further, we will continue to explore options to assist commercial fishermen regarding federal funds earmarked for fisheries and aquaculture in the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act. Finally, we encourage local ports and harbors to maintain continuity of commercial fisheries and sales of fish in a manner consistent with the health and safety guidelines issued by the California Department of Public Health and local public health officials.

For the latest information on the Dungeness crab season, please visit www.wildlife.ca.gov/crab and 2019-2020 Dungeness Crab Fishery Best Practices Guide.