New regulations for commercial Dungeness crab fishermen in Oregon aim to get boats on the water earlier in the season and reduce the amount of gear to avoid tangling with endangered whales.
The regulations, adopted in September, involve a number of key changes to how the fishery is managed, including a 20% reduction in the number of pots a permit holder is allowed to fish with later in the season.
The state is also tightening regulations around when fishermen can get replacement tags for gear reported as lost and lowering requirements for how full of meat crabs must be along the southern coast in order for the season to open.
The late-season gear reduction will be in place for the next three seasons. Fishery managers will evaluate how effective this measure is at reducing the risk of whale entanglement while still enabling an economically viable fishery.
Oregon’s lucrative Dungeness crab fishery traditionally opens in December but has been delayed in recent years by everything from harmful algal blooms and low meat yield in crabs to industry squabbles over the starting price per pound.
But Caren Braby, the marine program manager with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said getting boats on the water earlier and reducing the amount of gear later in the season when whales are moving off the coast through fishing areas is key to avoiding entanglement issues.
“It’s a little bit of a blunt instrument,” she said. “But that’s the one tool that we have right now that we know is going to make a difference.”
Oregon is also continuing to work on a habitat conservation plan to be submitted to federal fishery managers and will host two virtual public meetings on Oct. 8 and Oct. 22 to give fishermen and industry leaders the opportunity to provide their input.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service is considering issuing an incidental take permit to Oregon for the entanglement of species like humpback whales and leatherback sea turtles that are listed under the Endangered Species Act. The permit would allow some degree of impact to the whales by the Oregon fishery.
“Our fleet is made up of 400 individual businesspeople who each bring a different perspective to the issue,” said Hugh Link, the executive director of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission.
“For over three years, they have been given the opportunity to weigh in on how best to mitigate the whale entanglement risk,” he continued. “But it is an ongoing process. These upcoming meetings are the next important step and we hope they take the opportunity to have their voices heard.”
Whale entanglements on the West Coast have increased in the past six years.
While the number may be due to greater public awareness, fishery managers and researchers also point to a marine heatwave that began in 2014 and triggered a chain reaction in the ecosystem altering where and when whales migrate and feed. These shifts have begun to draw the whales directly into the path of crabbing gear, Braby said.
Oregon commercial gear has been implicated in some whale entanglement incidents on the West Coast.
Oregon, in collaboration with industry and conservation representatives, wants to get ahead of the problem and avoid a lawsuit like the one brought against California over the impacts to whales from commercial fishing activities. That lawsuit settled in 2019 and now dictates aspects of the state’s commercial Dungeness crab fishery.
Though some of Oregon’s measures this year are designed to get boats on the water earlier to avoid crossing paths with whales, other factors that determine the start of the fishery’s upcoming season remain unknown.
People with knowledge of the industry believe price negotiations may be tricky this year.
The coronavirus pandemic shut down markets near the start of the most recent season. Though landings and prices appeared good overall by the end of the season this summer, it isn’t clear how much product might be sitting in cold storage.
The pandemic has also altered how restaurants, casinos and other markets operate.
“There’s so many variables every year,” said Tim Novotny, the spokesman for the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission. “But it just seems like this year is going to be a mathematician’s delight trying to keep track of what the possibilities might be.”