Oregon’s commercial crabbing industry prides itself on sustainability.
Though Dungeness crab has been harvested commercially since the late 1800s, this population is considered to be stable to increasing along the West Coast — thanks to commercial and recreational regulations that protect the breeding population and ensure the state’s official crustacean will be conserved for future generations.
Now, the fishing industry is facing a new environmental challenge — whale entanglements in crabbing gear.
Before 2014, such entanglements were rare, numbering about 10 annually off the entire West Coast. Since then, entanglements have become more common, peaking at 55 in 2015 and numbering 46 off the West Coast last year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Forensics of each entanglement tell us that about half of them can be attributed to fishing gear, a third to Dungeness crab gear. Most of the crabbing gear entanglements are attributed to California fisheries, but Oregon gear has been confirmed in several entanglements over the past few years.
Whales can be disentangled in some cases, and fishermen and other ocean users know to immediately report incidents to a hotline or hail the U.S. Coast Guard to initiate a response from NOAA’s disentanglement team.
What’s behind the increase since 2014 and how can we prevent entanglements from happening in the first place?
Changes in ocean conditions, including climate change and effects from “the blob” (a marine heatwave in the Pacific Ocean), are likely factors in the increase as they are changing where and when whales migrate and feed off the Oregon Coast.
Both questions are ones the industry itself is committed to answering.
First, the commercial crabbing industry via the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission is helping fund aerial surveys of whales off the Oregon Coast. This project is a partnership between the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon Sea Grant and Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute, relying on Coast Guard collaboration, to gather information about where and when whales are in Oregon waters and their activities when they are here.
In combination with our knowledge of where and when fishing occurs, these resulting whale maps will help us assess the seasons and areas of greatest risk of interactions that lead to whale entanglement.
Industry members have also been part of the Oregon Sea Grant-led Oregon Whale Entanglement Working Group since its inception in 2017. The working group has been critical in raising awareness and understanding of the problem and potential solutions.
It has promoted the “best practices directive,” which describes fishing gear configurations and practices that are thought to decrease the risk of whale entanglements — such as minimizing surface gear, maintaining taut vertical lines that are less likely to entangle marine life and talking to each other on the water so everyone knows when and where there is whale activity and voluntarily avoids those areas.
The industry is also active in derelict gear removal, both in-season and postseason, an incentive program that further reduces the risk of entanglements.
While these efforts have led to success, more problem-solving and effort are needed as entanglements are still happening at an unacceptable level. California’s high rate of entanglements recently prompted a lawsuit and settlement that closed California’s crabbing season several months early in 2019.
In Oregon, the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Fish and Wildlife Commission are taking a phased approach to additional regulatory measures, and many of these efforts have widespread industry support from commercial crabbers.
The first phase requires better identification of crabbing gear to more readily track what type of gear whales are getting entangled in. Beginning this season, all commercial ocean and Columbia River crab permit holders must register their buoy color patterns with the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Recreational crabbers will also be required to mark their buoys.
While these first-phase measures are critical for our understanding of entanglements, they will not reduce the risk of entanglement. Phase two regulatory measures may involve reducing the amount of vertical lines — such as from crab pots — in the water during certain times of year. We know there is an increase in entanglements reports along the West Coast starting in the spring, which coincides with when Endangered Species Act-listed humpbacks are most abundant off the Oregon Coast.
Exact phase two measures won’t be decided by the commission until spring, but the Department of Fish and Wildlife is hosting public meetings now to get input from the crab fleet.
While designing these regulatory changes is expected to be difficult, the crab fishery has faced change before and retained its place as one of Oregon’s most sustainable fisheries. This new challenge requires true leadership and innovation, and the crab fleet is up to this challenge.