Interactions between whales and fixed gear (e.g. pots, traps, etc.) fisheries off the California coast are on the rise. And while California fishermen are continuing their legacy of stepping up to make sure that the west coast Dungeness crab fishery remains one of the most sustainable and conscientious fisheries on the planet, others have suggested those fishermen are not sacrificing enough for the whales.
On August 20, fishermen took part in a large stakeholder meeting to address the recent uptick in whale entanglement incidents. Although entanglements are increasing in all fixed gear fisheries, including spot prawn and lobster, this discussion focused specifically on Dungeness crab fishing.
The meeting was called in response to two letters by several conservation-oriented NGOs to agencies with some regulatory authority over the commercial Dungeness fishery. Those letters called on the agencies to reduce the numbers of entanglement incidents and proposed several measures that would restrict the fishery.
Present at the meeting were over thirty fishermen, as well as representatives from the NGO community and the responsible and expert agencies. The meeting was intended to share all available information related to the uptick, identify knowledge gaps, and start throwing ideas around that could guide efforts to reduce impacts.
There is an idea floating about the public, and reinforced by some of the NGOs, that fishermen are to blame for the increase in entanglements.
This is concerning given our attitudes toward whales. It can range from mild indifference, to elation at the very existence of such massive, majestic creatures with which they get to share the ocean. Not to mention that whales mean bait.
That concern was justified when representatives from the expert agencies reported to attendees that we don’t know where entanglements are occurring, how they happen, and why reports of entanglement incidents are on the rise.
What we do know is that the west coast is experiencing anomalous ocean conditions, including weak currents, minimal upwelling, exceptionally warm water, and the El Nino that’s brewing. The thought is that those conditions are making whale prey species do strange things, like hang out more nearshore than usual. And as you might expect, those whales are concentrating where the feed is, which just so happens to overlap with where the crab pots are.
We also know that there are a lot of whales out there, so many so that NMFS proposed in April to delist several populations of humpbacks, which are the primary species involved in entanglements.
For fishermen, though, one whale entanglement is one entanglement too many. As a community, we are incredibly wary of the potential restrictions on fishing that could be imposed if the public were to demand them. Bycatch of marine mammals is not like bycatch of other marine species, if only because the public’s attitude toward whales, which they would like to take home and cuddle (most of the public has never smelled whale halitosis).
And this is one of the reasons why California’s crabbers have historically led the way to ensure the safety and sustainability of Dungeness crab fishing for all the species on the water. Fishermen included. So we wished the NGO letter had included the crab industry’s many accomplishments in working toward that goal. These include self-imposing a limited entry program which reduced the number of participants in the fishery; self-imposing a pot limit that reduces the amount of buoy lines on the water; piloting lost gear retrieval programs that reward reducing the number of derelict buoy lines on the water; and mandating the California Dungeness Cab Task Force, a quasi-governmental agency composed of fishermen and administrators that looks in to any threat to the fishery.
Those accomplishments took place independent of the NGO community’s calls to limit entanglements. And now, again, fishermen will take up the cause to ensure that their impacts on the ecosystem are minimal. Because nobody knows the plight of an endangered species quite like a fisherman.