In a sea of bad news, we welcome any good news. Out of the golden state, comes that bit of good news we all need. The state of California recently took action to protect sea life.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (Department) released a new rule to reduce the risk of marine life, including endangered whales and sea turtles, becoming entangled in commercial Dungeness crab gear. The new rules went into effect on November 1, 2020, and apply to humpback whales, blue whales, and Pacific leatherback sea turtles.
A lawsuit and severe increases in whale entanglements prompted the state to enact the new rule. The Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit in 2017 after whale entanglements off the California coast broke records for three years in a row. In 2016, of the 29 cases where the gear could be identified that entangled, 22 were commercial Dungeness crab gear from California. Humpback whales were identified in 17 of the cases and one leatherback sea turtle was found dead and entangled in rock crab gear. The lawsuit led to an agreement in 2019 with the state to end the last two crab seasons before the spring whale migration.
“It’s good to see California finally taking whale entanglements seriously,” said Kristen Monsell, the Center’s oceans legal director, in a statement. “This new system should reduce the risk crab gear poses to whales and sea turtles. But we’re disappointed that officials didn’t do more to encourage conversion to ropeless gear, which is the only way to truly eliminate the threat of entanglement for these ocean animals.”
The danger of Dungeness crab traps
Fish harvesters catch Dungeness crab with circular steel traps on the seafloor. Bait in the traps attracts the crab and the traps capture them. The thick ropes connected to the commercial Dungeness crab traps entangle whales and sea turtles, injuring and killing them. The ropes cut into the flesh of the whales and turtles, causing them to drown. When whales become entangled in crab gear, they often end up trailing fishing gear behind them, which can sever appendages. Around 75 percent of whale entanglements are fatal. Entangled sea turtles can drown from being anchored to the gear.
Dungeness crab traps are the most common gear identified in entanglements off the West Coast. The state’s new Risk Assessment and Mitigation Program evaluates the necessity of mitigation measures like shortening the season or closing an area to crab gear to reduce entanglements.
Protecting endangered marine animals
California’s new rules protect endangered marine animals off of the state’s shores. In 1970, the U.S. federal government listed humpback whales as endangered under the Endangered Species Conservation Act, and under the Endangered Species Act in 1973. Known for their long flippers, humpback whales are still protected as endangered in four out of the 14 distinct population segments, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The longest animal on earth, the blue whale has a heart the size of a Volkswagen Beetle and weighs up to 200 tons. The loudest animal on earth, the blue whale is louder even than a jet engine. First listed as endangered in 1970, the blue whale is protected by the ESA throughout its range.
Named for their shells which have a texture more like leather than hard like other turtles, leatherback sea turtles are the largest sea turtle species. Pacific leatherbacks migrate from the Coral Triangle to the California coast. Their global population decreased by 40 percent over the last three generations. All leatherback populations are protected under the ESA.