Close to Home: Ropeless fishing gear won’t save whales

If you live in one of California’s historic fishing communities like Bodega Bay, you’ve probably heard the term “ropeless” crab fishing gear. That’s the new buzzword for equipment being promoted by environmental groups to solve the perceived problem of whale interactions with fishing gear.

These groups have convinced the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to adopt onerous new regulations that will force crab fishermen to adopt expensive, impractical and unproven fishing gear that will put most of us out of business. It will economically devastate — to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars annually — many coastal communities that rely on the fishing and seafood industry. And unfortunately, these regulations are set to go into effect on Sunday.

But the action these environmental groups are promoting isn’t based on the best available science. In fact, it isn’t based on any science or data at all. They claim that the number of deaths of humpback whales caused by entanglements are now high enough for the population to slip into decline.

The truth, however, is something different.

Whale population numbers are soaring. John Calambokidis and Jay Barlow from the Cascadia Research Collective, a respected marine mammal study center, recently released a report titled “Update on blue and humpback whale abundances using data through 2018." The researchers concluded that current estimates for the California-Oregon humpback whale population is 5,612 and 1,593 for the Washington-Southern British Columbia humpback whale population. This results in a new estimate totaling 7,205 for the California-Oregon-Washington humpback stock. This figure shows that whales are abundant and not in danger. It’s far higher than the previously thought 3,500 figure.

Meantime, mammal interaction with crab gear has a comparatively low — even negligible — impact on the health of these species. There have only been only four whale mortalities attributed to California commercial Dungeness crab gear since 2013, and none during the past two seasons. By comparison, strikes by large ships cause 50-150 whale deaths a year off the West Coast, according to Calambokidis.

So do we really need the so-called “ropeless” gear? The short answer is no because it’s actually more harmful to whales than existing crab fishing equipment. That’s because this gear has a fatal flaw -- it’s designed and manufactured by people with little real-world experience as fishermen.

Far from being ropeless, it has multiple buoy lines packed on top of the trap, with an acoustic release trigger that, in theory, allows the buoy to go to the surface when activated. In practice, this adds to the problem of lost gear with ropes and buoys attached. It’s much more dangerous to marine life because it litters the ocean with lines and other equipment that otherwise would not have been lost.

How do we know this? Both the East Coast lobster fishery and the West Coast Dungeness crab fishery, each of which are made up of thousands of independent fishermen, have tested the pop-up ropeless gear and found it to be faulty. The release mechanisms malfunction and must be abandoned at a rate of nearly 20%, an order of magnitude greater than conventional gear.

So not only is the proposed technology defective, the economics of converting and maintaining this type of system are unsustainable. Fishing traps cost $160-225 each. Pop-up ropeless gear costs upwards of $2,500 each. For a typical 500-trap tier operation to adapt an existing gear allotment to 100% pop-up gear, it would cost $360,000 to $1.2 million. The result will be thousands of fishermen out of business for trying to adopt gear that is unmanageably inefficient and prone to be lost at sea.

Fishing families won’t be the only casualties. Tens of thousands of shoreside jobs supported by the crab fishery, including those involved with unloading, processing, distributing, food service, and retail, will be lost.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Commercial crabbers have been improving fishing equipment for years in order to mitigate risk to marine mammals. They have the experience and the incentive to design and use effective gear. Their good judgment continues to result in huge reductions in whale interactions.

The bottom line is that the regulations the state Department of Fish and Wildlife is preparing to enact will introduce more harm than good, both to fishermen and the environment. Regulation on the Dungeness crab industry must reflect the best available science. The negligible impact of the industry on whale populations, as well as the industry’s cultural and economic importance to our coastal communities. must be considered in any decision.

Ben Platt, the president of the California Coast Crab Association, has fished for crab in California since 1980.

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