Reeling in a major cause of whale entanglement

Calder Deyerle is on a conference call. But while other participants sit in office chairs, Deyerle is miles out at sea on his 28-foot boat. Freshly caught fish, in a bucket at his feet, are flopping loudly enough to be heard on the call.

Fisherman Calder Deyerle fishes for rockfish off the Big Sur coast. Photo by Monterey Bay Aquarium/Presley Adamson

During crab season, Deyerle says, he works what feels like 24 hours a day—going home only to shower, eat and see his family. Even when he watches TV, he keeps his hands busy mending gear. Serving on the Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group, which led to the conference call, is what he calls one of his “extracurricular activities.”

But it serves a practical purpose: preserving a fishery, and a way of life, that’s been in his family for generations. And it’s helping protect one of the ocean’s most magnificent animals, too.

A migration menace

In recent years, crabbing gear has entangled whales, mostly humpbacks, with alarming frequency. In 2016 there were 71 reported entanglements along the U.S. West Coast—the most since the federal government began keeping records in ’82. Twenty-two of those were confirmed to be related to the Dungeness crab fishery.

Humpback whales (Megaptera novaengliae) dive in Moss Landing, CA.

Once entangled, some whales travel hundreds of miles trailing lines and buoys. A small number are cut loose by intrepid rescuers (including Deyerle and his son). Some perish, either by drowning or because they are unable to feed.

No one really knows why whale entanglements are one the rise, but several factors may be at work. One is the pronounced change in currents and temperatures in recent years. Put simply, there are more whales along the coast, and they are sticking around longer. (That’s also why there’s been such spectacular whalewatching close to shore lately.)

Warming waters and unusual current patterns affect the distribution of forage species like krill and anchovies—and the whales that eat them, according to Tom Dempsey, senior fishery project director for The Nature Conservancy. “The ocean is a dynamic place,” he says. “Unfortunately, these patterns increase the risk of entanglements.”

Stewards of the coast

Fishermen offload fresh crab in Moss Landing. Photo by Steve Kepple

About one-third of whale entanglements are due to the commercial Dungeness crab fishery, a $170-million industry on the U.S. West Coast. That’s what prompted the Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group to form in the fall of 2015. It’s made up of 20 stakeholders, including commercial and recreational fishermen, environmentalists, researchers and government workers.

“No one wants entanglements to happen,” says Deyerle. “It’s a bummer for everyone, including fishermen. We want to be perceived as stewards.”

The group, along with Monterey Bay Aquarium, supported California’s SB 1287, the Whale Protection & Crab Gear Retrieval Act, which Governor Jerry Brown signed into law in 2016. The act creates a permit that allows fishermen to collect a “bounty” for abandoned crab pots they retrieve after the season has closed. The pot’s owner pays a fee—generally much lower than the gear’s value—to get it back.

“Derelict fishing gear is one of the most common forms of marine debris. It’s also one of the most impactful,” says Margaret Spring, the Aquarium’s chief conservation officer and an advisor to the Monterey Bay Fisheries Trust.

“Once fishing gear is lost or abandoned, it can continue to capture fish and other marine animals. Unretrieved fishing gear is not only a threat to marine wildlife, but it adds to the broader problem of plastic pollution.”

Lost and found

Crab pots are one of several kinds of fishing gear known to entangle migrating whales. Photo by R Fisher

I meet Deyerle at his family’s restaurant, Sea Harvest in Moss Landing. As we talk, his 6-year-old son Miles scurries around outside, across slippery, seaweed-covered rocks at the ocean’s edge. The next moment he’s inside, chowing down on shrimp, clams, and chowder. You get the feeling this family lives half on land, half in the water.

Deyerle and other members of the Working Group helped create the “Best Practices Guide,” which helps fisherman reduce the chances of whale entanglement. More than 2,000 copies of the guide have been distributed to fishing associations, gear stores and harbors.

The Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group meets to tackle the problem of whale entanglements in crab gear.

Dempsey and The Nature Conservancy have also helped create website tools to track and retrieve lost traps found at sea. Fishermen can adjust the settings on their phones to attach GPS coordinates to their photos, and when they find lost crab gear, they take a photo and email it. Back-end software populates a chart with that location data, allowing port-level coordinators to target recovery efforts.

“It’s extremely simple for the fisherman,” Dempsey says, “and it means that people aren’t steaming around burning fuel, looking for lost traps.”

A win-win for workers and whales

A commercial fishing vessel returns to Moss Landing Harbor at sunset. Photo by Steve Kepple

Conserving ocean wildlife doesn’t always offer an immediate payoff for fishermen. But with the crab gear retrieval program, economic and environmental benefits come together.

“Fisherman can go out, get the gear, earn money doing so, and other fisherman pay to get their gear back,” says Sherry Flumerfelt, executive director of the Monterey Bay Fisheries Trust. “We’re putting a kind of bounty on the pots.”

Nobody wants to see whales harmed by entanglements, Deyerle says; and no fisherman wants to lose expensive gear or risk losing the fishery they depend on.

“On this issue, fishermen are doing everything they can to work with environmentalists and scientists,” Deyerle says. “As far as I’m concerned, one whale entanglement is way too many.”

Geoff Drake

Dungeness crab illus

UPDATE, Dec. 12, 2017: The Center for Biological Diversity and other organizations are petitioning the federal government to rank the Dungeness crab fishery as one of the most dangerous to whales because of increased entanglements. The Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program has reviewed new data indicating higher rates of whale and turtle entanglements. As a result, we will conduct a full update of the Seafood Watch recommendation for West Coast Dungeness crab, which is currently rated a Good Alternative (yellow).


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