Paying Crab Fishers to Save Whales

A new California law rewards crabbers for removing from the ocean lost and abandoned traps that entangle and kill marine mammals.
A humpback whale entangled in fishing line. (Photo: E. Lyman/HWS and NOAA)
Sep 27, 2016· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

For years, California Dungeness crab fishers wanted to haul lost and abandoned crabbing gear out of the sea to keep it from entangling and killing whales but were forbidden by law to retrieve the free-floating lines, wire traps, and buoys, which are considered private property.

Now, with whale entanglements soaring, a bill signed Friday by Gov. Jerry Brown not only rewards fishers for clearing away the hazardous debris but pays for it by making owners of derelict gear buy back their equipment from the state.

The Whale Protection and Crab Gear Retrieval Act was introduced by state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, and approved overwhelmingly by both houses of the legislature. It was backed by a diverse coalition of groups, including Earthjustice, the Golden Gate Fishermen’s Association, and SeaWorld.

Under the new law, which takes effect next year, Dungeness crab fishers can receive a permit to collect lost or abandoned traps after the crab season has closed. They will be paid an as-yet-unspecified bounty for each trap turned in.

Taxpayers will not foot the bill. Instead, owners of the drifting gear will pay fines based on the value of their equipment, typically several hundred dollars for a trap and its lines. Failure to buy back their gear will result in revocation of their vessel permit for the following season. Abandoned or lost gear can be traced to the owner through an identification number attached to each trap.

“With whale entanglement numbers skyrocketing off the California coast, we were able to bring together crabbers and environmentalists to get this common sense bill signed into law,” McGuire said in a statement. “This bill will save the lives of countless threatened and endangered whales and it will keep California’s crab fleet fishing.”

Whale entanglements reached record numbers in California waters last year—57 incidents were reported, the highest since the National Marine Fisheries Service started keeping records in 1982. At least 11 entanglements were associated with the Dungeness crab fishery.

This year is on track to be even worse, with 40 reports of entangled whales in the first six months alone.

The actual number of entanglements is much higher, as the majority go unreported, according to the fisheries service.

RELATED: The Cost of a Crab Dinner: Dead Whales

McGuire said thousands of loose traps, known as pots, are lost every Dungeness crab season, which runs from November until around June. A voluntary pilot program over the last two years recovered about 1,500 traps.

The gear, which could have hundreds of feet of rope attached to a buoy, is typically ripped from the seafloor by rough weather, improperly secured, or sliced in two by vessel propellers.

Environmentalists say that having trap owners pay for cleaning up their mess will help save whales.

“It’s a great day for the whales [and] fantastic that Dungeness crab fishers are being proactive in addressing whale entanglement and other issues that come with lost or abandoned gear,” said Ashley Blacow, Pacific policy manager for the marine conservation group Oceana. “This bill is very important for improved ocean safety—not just for whales but also for mariners.”

It’s just a first step. Whales also become entangled in gear that is fixed to the bottom during the season, and more research is needed to help reduce those incidents.

Blacow said researchers are trying to determine why entanglements have spiked recently.

“It could be an increase in reporting, with more eyes on the water,” Blacow said. “It could be the concentration of crab traps or their placement, if they are placed in high feeding systems for whales.”

Whale entanglement can be “very morbid,” Blacow said. Animals have been found with severed fins and rope wrapped around their mouths, flippers, fins, and flukes.

“That can be several hundred pounds,” she added. “Over time the weight of the ropes end up cutting into the skin and through the blubber, which can cause infection, and it impedes the whale’s diving capability and ability to feed and can lead to disease and malnutrition.”

It can take up to six months for a severely entangled whale to die, Blacow said.

Oregon and Washington have similar programs, although they don’t offer bounties or impose fines. Fishers who retrieve lost gear are permitted to keep it for themselves.

Even without a financial incentive, the results were impressive. In Washington between 2009 and 2011, nearly 94 tons of gear were recovered, including more than 1,500 crab pots and miles of lost line.