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To save whales, Sen. McGuire promotes program to recover entangling crabbing gear

The rising number of whales that become entangled in lost or abandoned crab pots off the western United States has spurred a new state bill aimed at ensuring hundreds, even thousands of crab traps that are left behind each year get recovered from the ocean.

Authored by state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, the Whale Protection and Gear Retrieval Act would establish a fee-based regulatory system under which commercial crabbers could be paid to recover lost gear from the water, while owners would pay to reclaim it - or risk losing their crab permit - ensuring funding of the program for the coming year.

The system is modeled after a pilot program that has resulted in collection of about 1,000 crab pots and attached ropes over the past two years from coastal waters between Half Moon Bay and the Oregon border, McGuire said, though many of the details would be worked out at a later date.

It was the commercial industry, through representatives on the California Dungeness Crab Task Force, that moved to make the program permanent, McGuire and others said.

“It’s basic accountability, is what it is: Take care of your equipment,” said Bodega Bay fisherman Dick Ogg, who took part in the pilot program this year, retrieving dozens of pots from the shoreline of the North Coast.

“All the crabbers know that we need to clean up our mess,” said Half Moon Bay crabber Jim Anderson, a member of the state task force and vocal proponent of the effort.

Commercial crab fishermen typically use heavy, cage-like traps to harvest the succulent shellfish that generally come into season in November and are most in demand through the winter holidays.

The pots are carried out to the ocean and unloaded onto the ocean floor, marked by buoys connected to them by ropes that are the key to the problem. If a storm, another boat, a kelp mat or some other force snags the line and pulls the pot out of position it can be lost, and the lines tangled into a mess.

Sometimes traps fall off a boat. Or a crabber may just miss one when he’s retrieving his pots.

Either way, “lost gear happens,” Ogg said.

But where Ogg says he goes out after each season to search for pots that he has missed, not everyone does so.

“All sorts of things happen, so now when you go back and you collect the gear, typically you lose 5 to 10 percent of your gear each season,” he said. “It’s not unusual for you to lose 10 percent. For me that would be 35 pots, and that’s significant.”

The danger lies in the web of rope that can be the result, especially if multiple pots are lost together, forming a “rosebud” of lines that can weave together like a net.

Though whales and other marine mammals can be ensnared in a variety of ways, crabbing gear is a leading cause of recent whale entanglements, accounting last year for 11 of the 18 cases in which the source could be determined, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

But 39 incidents, or about two-thirds of those documented last year, could not be tracked to a fishery, so it’s possible crabbing equipment was responsible for even more, though “all types of gear play a role,” said Justin Viezbicke, marine mammal stranding and entanglement coordinator with NOAA Fisheries. “It’s not just Dungeness.”

Meanwhile, for reasons still uncertain, the number of cases has been on the rise - perhaps related to an upsurge in commercial crabbing interest prompted by high catch volumes and values that peaked above $95 million in 2011-12, but likely also linked to recent near-shore migrations that have prompted more frequent interactions between whales and crabbing gear.

Whereas an average 11 entanglement reports were received annually off the western states between 2000 and 2012, there were 30 in 2014 and a record 61 last year, 57 of them off the coast of California, NOAA Fisheries said.

The increase could reflect increased awareness and reporting and improved documentation, in addition to several seasons of warmer-than-usual coastal waters that have altered migration patterns, Viezbicke said.

“I think the main thing that you see is, when you have high densities of whales and high fishing activity going on out there, the expectation is that you’re going to see high numbers of entanglements,” Viezbicke said.

The “million-dollar question … is how can we look at this for the future and be more preventative in nature?”

One consideration is the type of rope used to catch crab. Though floating rope has been most common, the industry has experimented with different ways to sink the lines, and it appears promising, Anderson said.

The state task force also has working groups looking at a variety of factors that may be important in reversing the trend.

They also have been working on a means of creating incentives for crabbers to recover lost pots more cost-efficient than just randomly searching the ocean for buoys.

The basic gear retrieval program put into place over the past two years allows commercial fishermen to obtain a permit to recover other people’s gear, paying them and their crew $75 per pot, the same amount owners tracked down through identification markings are asked to pay to get them back. New, they run about $200.

The system still has some kinks - including crabbers who don’t want their pots back, Ogg said - and concerns that the permanent program will prevent those who can’t afford the fees from renewing their crabbing permits.

But supporters say it offers the framework for needed improvements, with room for details to be finessed where needed, and built-in incentives for people to participate on both sides of the recovery equation.

“Working with California’s hardworking crabbers and our state’s environmental community, we’re advancing this needed legislation that will benefit the thousands of migratory whales that feed off our coast and the thousands of fishermen who make up the Golden State’s crab and salmon fleet,” McGuire said. “We’ve seen a record number of whale entanglements over the past few years and it’s crucial to get the lost gear out of the water and out of their way. This bill creates a simple solution to this problem, while at the same time supporting recommendations initiated by crab fishermen.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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