There’s a Whale of a Problem (Literally) with the Dungeness Crab Industry

dungeness crab

The West Coast’s Dungeness crab fishery is encountering one of the biggest sustainability issues ever: the fishery entangled more than 22 whales in 2016, contributing to a record-breaking 71 whale entanglements on the West Coast alone. This number breaks the record for whale entanglements for the third straight year.

This information, released recently by the National Marine Fisheries Service, is cause for alarm, according to experts. Ryan Bigelow, Program Engagement Manager for the Seafood Watch program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, notes that the Dungeness crab fishery has received a red bycatch score from the program due to its connection with issues of whale entanglement.

Whale entanglement is a significant problem when it comes to the safety, wellbeing, and survival of the often endangered whale species who are concerned. Whales can suffer slow, painful deaths due to starvation, dehydration, or trouble breathing when entangled in fishing lines and pots used to catch Dungeness crabs.

“Endangered whales don’t have the resilience to fight through Dungeness crab pots during another year of record-breaking entanglements,” says Catherine Kilduff, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “We need to stop the entanglements before it’s too late.”

Unfortunately, this is not a problem limited to the Dungeness crab industry. The global estimate for cetacean entanglement resulting in deaths is approximately 308,000 per year. In addition, studies carried out on the East Coast showed that approximately 80 percent of the right whale population and 55 to 60 percent of the humpback population has been entangled at least once in their life, based on observed scarring on these populations, with 20 percent of animals getting new wounds from this equipment every year.

But with the Dungeness crab fishery showing even more entanglements than the average, something has to be done.

Experts claim that the primary problem with this fishery is that there are too many Dungeness crab lines in the ocean.

“This is one of the most profitable, highest-revenue fisheries in the state, which means that there’s a lot of competition to put more and more traps in the water,” explains Kilduff. “And that means that the whales are more and more at risk of getting entangled.”

Solving the Problem of the Dungeness Crab Fishery

While the fishery is showing more entanglements than any other, experts also say that this isn’t any reason to stop supporting the Dungeness crab fishery.

David Mattila of the International Whaling Commission explains that if experts were to ask people to boycott the fishery, the problem could actually get worse.

“What happens is you automatically set up an adversarial relationship,” he explains. Fishermen might be less likely to report entangled whales, thus lowering the perceived statistics of entanglements without actually solving the problem.

Instead, experts recommend that we encourage Dungeness crab fishermen to work with conservation efforts to solve this problem.

“The only way to really solve this problem in a socially and societally equitable or balanced way is to work with the fishermen,” explains Mattila. “Because they’re the ones who know the kinds of things that they can do to change their fishing, if they’re motivated.”

“I think that there’s pretty low-hanging fruit in terms of changes that the fishery could make for instantaneous results in terms of lowering the number of whales that are caught,” explains Kilduff.

One of these solutions would be to encourage fishermen to communicate where they place their traps. This information could then be cross-referenced with known migration routes of whales, allowing experts to recommend modifications that would keep crab traps away from whale populations altogether.

“This requires a little bit of a mind shift for the fishermen, who are very protective of their knowledge about the ocean and about where Dungeness crabs are,” explains Kilduff.

Luckily, most fishermen are more than happy to contribute to this, at least in Mattila’s experience.

“The fishermen don’t want this to happen,” he explains. “All of the fishermen that I’ve talked to do care about the whales, but even if they didn’t, it’s damage to their gear, it’s down-time for fishing, it’s a real headache.”

New technology is being developed to help give fishermen even more tools to contribute to the improvement of the sustainability of this fishery. In 2016, a best practices guide was developed, highlighting modifications like adjustments in trap line lengths and limits on the amount of line between the main buoy and the trailer buoy that could reduce the likelihood of whale entanglements.

A few new developments, like remote sensing technology that can indicate where whales are, due to sea surface temperature or the presence of krill, could also be put into place.

Matilla even cites an Australian technique developed to fish for expensive lobster that involves a remotely released trap with no line at all.

“I think we just need to bring fisheries’ management into this century and say, ‘We have to fish smarter, not harder,’” says Kilduff.

To do this, however, the state of California needs more funds devoted to the protection of this wildlife: the Australian remote trap equipment, for example, is much more expensive than the equipment that Dungeness crab fishermen are currently using.

And that’s where we come in.

The Center for Biological Diversity has created a petition addressing both the state of California, asking it to devote more resources to this issue, and the National Marine Fishing Service, requesting their help in putting some of these solutions into place. With their help, we may soon be able to drastically reduce the number of whales that are endangered by the Dungeness crab fishery.

Related on EcoSalon
Sard-In: The New ‘It’ Food in France is a Tiny, Sustainable Fish
Pescatarian: 10 Ways to Make Sure You’re Eating the Most Sustainable Fish
Endangered Species Like Bluefin Tuna Could Find Protection in the Growing ‘Faux Fish’ Market

Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American food and culture writer based in Paris. She loves uncovering the stories behind ingredients and exposing the face of our food system, so that consumers can make educated choices. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice Munchies, and Serious Eats.