SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) — The California Department of Fish and Wildlife announced that the existing statewide closures for commercial and recreational Dungeness crab fishing off Central and Southern California will remain in effect — at least through December 30 — to protect humpback whales from becoming entangled in fishing gear.

Commercial harvest of Dungeness crab also remains delayed off Northern California’s coast due to low meat quality in crabs.

Recent aerial surveys revealed high numbers of humpback whales swimming along California’s central coast. CDFW is concerned that whales could become entangled by crab pot gear as they make their annual migration toward Mexico.

“Elevated whale entanglement risk is becoming the new norm in the fall and spring months, so the crab fishing season with conventional vertical line gear is likely to get shorter and shorter,” said Dr. Geoff Shester, Oceana’s California senior scientist and a member of the California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group.

The CDFW’s next whale risk assessment and round of crab meat quality testing is expected to occur on or before December 22. This will inform a potential December 31 season opener.

There have been 16 confirmed entanglements of humpback whales reported off California this year, according to CDFW. According to NOAA Fisheries, roughly 75 percent of reported whale entanglements are fatal as whales can drag the heavy fishing gear for months, hindering their ability to dive and feed.

A worker moves a bin of Dungeness Crab after it was offloaded from a fishing vessel on November 17, 2010 in San Francisco. (Photo by Justin Sullivan /Getty Images)

Shester said Wednesday’s decision to delay the season was unanimous.

“We commend the efforts of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group who unanimously supported the continued season delay to safeguard humpback whales,” Shester said.

A possible alternative to conventional crab pots is pop-up fishing gear for catching “whale-safe crab,” according to Shester. Pop-up gear stores the line and buoy with the trap on the seafloor until fishermen are ready to retrieve the gear, alleviating the entanglement risk as there are no vertical lines in the water.

“We urge the state of California and crab fishermen to work together to authorize pop-up gear which will support fishermen’s livelihoods and protect the safety of whales and sea turtles,” Shester said.