New Rules for Retrieving Lost Crabbing Gear

December, 2016

Nothing says “holidays” in California quite like fresh, local Dungeness crab.  And now crab fishermen, consumers and whale conservationists can all enjoy some satisfaction knowing that lost and derelict fishing gear will be removed from coastal waters and returned to its proper place in the gear piles of crabbers waiting for their next season.  On Sept. 23, Governor Brown signed the Whale Protection and Crab Gear Retrieval Act (SB 1287).  This bill has widespread support from both environmental organizations and commercial fishing interests alike.  

Developed out of a project originally undertaken by UC Davis and the Humboldt Fisherman’s Marketing Association, the Act serves multitudes of purposes: protection of whales from unintended entanglement in gear that has gone missing, reduction in marine debris, return of expensive gear to their owners, and reduction in navigational and fishing obstructions.  Prior to passage of this Act, it was unlawful for anyone to conduct large-scale gear retrieval activities due to the prohibitions on handling someone else’s commercial gear and also on handling commercial fishing gear after the close of the season.  This law will allow for the organized collection and retrieval of lost gear after the close of the season—a time when conditions for such activity are conducive—and will cover the expenses incurred by charging a fee to the gear’s owner that must be paid in order to crab in the following season.

Fins wrapped in ropes and whales dragging pots and buoys are disturbing sights to anyone with a love of the ocean—whale watchers and commercial fishermen alike. Whales are an iconic representation of wild nature and the health of our oceans.   Once at an all time low, the numbers of humpback whales seem to be rebounding, up from around 500 in the 1980s to around 2,000 today.

The passage of this Bill was preceded by a year of both unprecedented and unfortunate occurrences for Dungeness crab fishermen and whales off the California coast. The Dungeness crab fishing season was delayed from its traditional opening date of mid-November on the Central Coast to finally opening on the North Coast after May—the latest in history.  The year also saw unprecedented numbers of whales close to the California shoreline during the spring migrations.  These two occurrences were possibly the result of an El Niño weather pattern that resulted in warmer ocean waters off the west coast of North America, exacerbated by “the Blob,” a large and persistent patch of warm water that likely brought bait fish and krill close to shore while fueling the largest bloom ever recorded of the domoic acid-causing diatom Pseudo-nitzschia.

This resulted in a dismaying confluence.  The high numbers of whales found along the coast occurred during a time when most commercial Dungeness crab fishermen would have normally already brought their pots in and have discontinued fishing until the following year.  Domoic acid and the delayed season opening changed that, causing large numbers of fishermen to be forced to fish during an unseasonable time or face losing their homes, businesses, and being unable to feed their families.  This corresponded with an astonishing increase in the number of whale entanglements, with 50 confirmed in 2015 and an additional 40 in the first half of 2016 alone.  

It is unknown what the cause of these ocean conditions are, or whether they are a sign of the new normal in this era of global climate change.  Only time and study will provide answers to those questions. For now, we can celebrate successful progress for both whales and fishermen. With the recreational Dungeness crab season opening at its usual time on Nov. 5, and the commercial season not long after, hopes are high for a return to more normal conditions in at least the season ahead.  

Dungeness crab fishing is the bread and butter for California’s commercial fishing fleet, with an estimated $90 million industry value.  It is also arguably one of the most sustainable of the fisheries: a well-managed resource with little by-catch.  The Whale Protection and Crab Gear Retrieval Act is a proactive solution to the problem of lost crabbing gear that will benefit both whales and commercial fishermen.