Conservation group seeks judgement in California crab gear lawsuit

Published on
November 1, 2018

A year after the Center for Biological Diversity filed a federal lawsuit against the state of California regarding its Dungeness crab fishery, the conservation nonprofit has requested the judge in the case issue a summary judgement ruling in its favor.

A lawyer for the CBD said the organization filed the motion for summary judgement last week in the U.S. District Court’s North California District in hopes of preventing more animals from getting entangled in the crab traps set by commercial fishermen. Through July, there have been 22 whale entanglements this year, according to the group.

The federal Endangered Special Act prohibits encounters with humpback whales, blue whales, and leatherback sea turtles that could lead to injury or death, and a favorable ruling would force state officials to take action, Kristen Monsell, the center’s ocean’s program legal director, said in a statement.

“Another crab season starts (this month), creating a minefield of heavy gear that migrating whales must navigate,” she said. “We need the court to order state officials to stop causing the injury and death of endangered whales and sea turtles while managing this fishery.”

Judge Maxine M. Chesney isn’t scheduled to rule on the motion until 8 February.

Earlier this year, the state’s legislature passed an omnibus fisheries bill that called for the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife to adopt rules that take into consideration the potential risk for entanglements. Until the regulations take effect, the state could restrict fishing for Dungeness crab in certain areas where the fishery “poses a significant risk” for whales and other marine life. 

“Legislators are telling wildlife officials to reduce entanglements, but whales and sea turtles need protection now,” Monsell said. “And we need the court to force state officials to finally address this heartbreaking crisis.”

In related news, the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission has voted to underwrite the first year of a three-year aerial survey of humpbacks, gray whales, and blue whales off the Oregon coast. Oregon State University researcher Leigh Torres told Spokane Public Radio the Marine Mammal Institute and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife hope to win a federal grant to cover the costs of the final two years of the study.

"One of the best known ways to reduce whale entanglements is to reduce the overlap between where fishing gear is and where whales are," Torres said. "In the state of Oregon, we have pretty good information about where the fishing gear is, but not that great information about whale distribution in our waters. So that is really the knowledge gap that this project wants to fill."

There were record numbers of whale entanglements in fishing gear on the U.S. West Coast in 2014, 2015, and 2016. Reported cases of entanglements in 2018 are on level for another record year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Between January and August 2018, NOAA recorded 23 cases in California waters (18 confirmed, five unconfirmed), 12 in Washington (all confirmed) and four off the Oregon coast (two confirmed, two unconfirmed). 

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