CRESCENT CITY (AP) -- Commercial fishermen are protesting an order by California wildlife authorities to close the Dungeness crab fishery in mid-May to protect whales and sea turtles from becoming entangled in fishing gear.
There have been no confirmed interactions between commercial Dungeness crab gear and any whales during the current crab season, which began in December, Ben Platt, president of the Crescent City-based California Coast Crab Association, said in a statement.
California Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Charlton H. Bonham on Wednesday ordered the fishery to close on May 15 for the remainder of the season south of the Sonoma-Mendocino county line, which is about 90 miles (145 kilometers) north of San Francisco.
Acknowledging challenges facing the commercial fishing industry during the coronavirus pandemic, the department said the decision "provides additional time on the water while balancing the need to protect whales and turtles."
The crab association statement characterized harm to migratory whales from commercial crab fishing gear as a "perceived risk."
The group said that cooperative measures between the fishing fleet and the state make it extremely rare for there to be interactions between Dungeness crab gear and subgroups of humpback whales that are categorized as endangered or threatened.
The association contended that interactions between crab gear and endangered blue whales are even more unlikely, and that populations of Eastern North Pacific gray whales, which are no longer listed under the Endangered Species Act, are healthy.
"The risk of crab fishing gear harming endangered whales is statistically insignificant because of low concentrations of whale, as well as the relatively small amounts of gear being deployed along the Central California coast," said Platt, the association president.
The association said a recent survey found in one week there were 94 crab boats employing 350 fishermen. It also noted that the economic impact extends through dockworkers, truck drivers and crab wholesalers.
"The imagined whale crisis pales in comparison to the reality of COVID-19 which makes our crab fishery more vital now than ever before to the suffering economies of California coastal communities," Platt said.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife said it was exploring options to assist fishermen under the federal Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act.
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