Rick Lilienthal and his father were just half a mile offshore, heading into the ocean to pull in their crabbing lines, when they saw a gray whale going “100 miles an hour” with a buoy trailing off its left fin.
“It was just a shock,” Lilienthal said. “I’d never seen one before.”
That was 50 years ago. Lilienthal, a 68-year-old commercial Dungeness crab fisherman, said he hasn’t seen another entangled whale since.
But a slew of rule changes coming within weeks could make such rare occurrences even less frequent, even as they have the potential to wreak havoc on summertime crabbers’ harvests.
Starting May 1, Oregonfishermen will have to reduce the number of crab cages they can drop in the ocean and won’t be allowed to drop them lower than 40 fathoms, or 240 feet.
Gway Kirchner, an environmental advocate who gave input on the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife rules, acknowledged that whales getting caught in crab fishing lines isn’t nearly as big of a problem in Oregon as it is in California and Washington. But that doesn’t mean it’s too early to take action.
“If we don’t take the steps that we’re taking today, I think that it could become a significant problem for us,” Kirchner said, citing the changes to whale migration and feeding patterns possibly driven by climate change.
Humpback and gray whale populations have rebounded in recent decades after being hunted to near extinction. That rebound, in combination with recent changes in the ocean ecosystem, has driven some whales into crabber territory and crabbers into whale territory.
Increasing humpback whale populations have forced the animals to compete for food, even as their primary source of nourishment – krill – has become less available due to ocean conditions. As a result, the whales are going after anchovies, which are generally found closer to shore. Crabs, meanwhile, have been migrating ever deeper into the ocean in recent years, drawing crabbers with them.
“Increased overlap is, theoretically, drawing more entanglements,” said Caren Braby, the state’s top marine resources official. “It’s a common-sense conclusion.”
There have been nine known cases of whales getting caught in Oregon crab lines in the last nine years, compared to four in the nine years before that, according to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife data. Of the seven humpback whale cases since 2003, five were in the last seven years.
By forbidding particularly deep crab pots during the summer months, state officials hope to reduce the risk to humpback whales passing off the Oregon coast on their way north. The whales are usually found 330 feet or deeper,the state says, meaning they will be better protected if crab cages stay at shallower depths.
One alternative to the ban on deep crab fishing is banning summer crabbing altogether, said Braby, the fish and wildlife agency’s marine resources manager. While an extreme option, it could still be on the table, depending on how successful the new rules are.
But Lilienthal said the measures are overkill and have the potential to cause serious financial troubles for smaller fishing operations. The restrictions will take thousands of dollars out of their pockets, he said, because crab pots must be dropped ever deeper to find them in abundance.
“It hurts everybody,” Lilienthal said. “That’s money that’s not going in your savings account to make it through the winter.”
Braby acknowledged the virtually inevitable hardship to come for crabbers and, she said, their concerns are understandable.
“They’re about to experience something they’ve never experienced before,” Braby said.
Indeed, financial impact will be one of the factors the agency will consider when evaluating the rules over the next few seasons, Braby said.
The state’s measures are only in effect in the second half of the commercial crabbing season – from May 1 to Aug. 14. That means they are likely to affect smaller fishing operations more than larger ones because bigger businesses turn their attention to other ocean species that time of year, former Dungeness Crab Commission member John Corbin said.
Corbin, whose operations are based on the Columbia River, said he started seeing a change in the whale populations – and the conversations about them – in the last few years. The industry has become far more aware of the whales and has been trying to accommodate them.
“It’s kind of like, ‘Wow, what’s going on here?'” Corbin said of growing whale incursions into areas where fishermen drop crab lines. “Because this is different than how it used to be.”