McGuire tackles crabbing, whale entanglement issues at committee hearing

CDFW director announces first of its kind conservation plan for state

North Coast state Sen. Mike McGuire held a hearing on the Dungeness crab season and whale entanglement issues Wednesday afternoon. (Screenshot)
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North Coast state Sen. Mike McGuire hosted a hearing of the joint committee on fisheries and aquaculture this afternoon, discussing the Dungeness crab season and the issue of whale entanglements.

“Domoic acid levels in the Pacific this year have been trending upwards, especially in Northern California,” McGuire said at the start of the hearing, held at Aquarium of the Bay in San Francisco. “Humboldt, Del Norte and southern Oregon have appeared as hot spots along the West Coast.”

And while the 2015 crabbing season and spike in entanglements was one of the more talked-about issues during the hearing, McGuire added, “We do not expect another statewide closure like we saw in 2015.”

Crab season

California Department of Fish and Wildlife director Charlton Bonham announced today he will be submitting a conservation plan that will look at the effects of the crabbing industry on whale entanglements and identify steps to minimize whale entanglements while protecting what he called the “prized crab fishery.” He said the plan would be submitted to the federal government and would be the first document of its kind.

“Last night our department gave formal notice to our federal colleagues at (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) that we intend to submit a conservation plan to minimize whale entanglements in our crab fishery,” he said. “I checked. No other agency has done this.”

He said it’s a critical move for the state.

“Our ocean waters are home to one of the most productive ecosystems in the world,” he said. “California ranks very high the protection of our ocean.”

He said he wants to see a return to having holiday meals with fresh crab, something the local industry has struggled with in recent years.

“I think the vision is a future where crab stays on our holiday menus forever, where coastal communities are thriving in the face of a warming climate and ocean conditions and where we can all look westward and see whales and turtles swimming free from entanglement,” he said.

But he is clearly concerned that issues with domoic acid will not go away.

“That may happen in the future more, not less,” he said.

McGuire noted recent years “have been the most challenging time in the history of the crab fleet,” but added that nearly $36 million in federal disaster relief was allocated, although it took several years for that to happen. He said the majority of that goes to fishermen whose crab seasons were upended by the disastrous 2015 crabbing season that almost didn’t happen.

Noah Oppenheim, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, said the “new normal” of dealing with domoic acid and delayed seasons is one of the main reasons his organization filed a lawsuit recently.

“This is our new normal. Commercial fisheries in the state of California are going to be facing domoic acid challenges in every single season that we are trying to open,” he said. “We know that this is our new normal. That is why weeks ago, we filed a lawsuit against 30 fossil fuels companies for their role in creating this situation. … These companies buried the truth about the impacts climate change will have about oceans, society and commercial crab fisheries.”

Whale entanglements

This year alone, there have been 27 confirmed whale entanglements. That’s down from the 71 reported in 2016, but it is still more than double the state average.

“Prior to 2015, we had 10 whale entanglements per year on average,” McGuire noted. “. .. In 2015, when we saw that peak year, we immediately jumped into action.”

But he added that is not the only problem whales face.

“We have been focused on whale entanglements. And rightfully so. These numbers are unacceptable,” he said. “What’s not talked about is the number of whales being killed every year with commercial vessels.”

This year, an estimated 80 humpback, blue and fin whales have been killed by vessel strikes, according to Cotton Rockwood, a senior marine ecologist with Point Blue Conservation Science.

“That’s twice the federal guidelines that set the number of human-caused mortalities,” he said. “We’re getting a lot of deaths beyond the acceptable numbers.”

He said the only two proven methods of reducing whale strikes by ships are speed restrictions and route restrictions, both of which he said have been implemented on the East Coast.

“They are are the only current solutions we have,” he said.

As for whale entanglements, one option being explored is different fishing gear. And Bodega Bay fisherman Dick Ogg has tried putting some of those new ideas to work, which include using lines that will degrade with time or a device he said was similar to a “Chinese finger trap” that can be used to connect lines, but that will break apart with a certain amount of force is exerted.

He said the key was to find equipment that worked and that was not burdensome to the fleet.

“I want to make sure whatever we are doing won’t impact us financially,” he said. “We’re trying a lot of things that are simple and not very expensive to the fishermen and that’s really important.”

In the end, McGuire said the state needs to allocate more funding to both protect the whales and the crabbing fleet.

“Bottom line is this: We need to ensure that we are protecting California’s majestic whale population and be able to allow the crab fishery to be able to thrive in the years to come,” he said. “I believe we can have both and it’s going to take compromise on both sides to be able to do so.”

Ruth Schneider can be reached at 707-441-0520.

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