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.”