In 2015 and 2016, unfavorable conditions in the eastern Pacific Ocean off the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California resulted in a spike in interactions between fishing operations and whales. In a memo released in March of this year, NOAA reported 61 entanglements in 2015 and 70 in 2016.
That same memo noted the commercial Dungeness crab accounted for a significant number of entanglements which could be confirmed to a specific trap fishery—73 between 1982 and 2017. Litigation was initiated against the director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) alleging “[he] has caused and is causing the illegal ‘take’ of threatened and endangered humpback whales, endangered blue whales, and endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtles” in violation of Section 9 of the Endangered Species Act. In short: due to the lack of an Incidental Take Permit (ITP), any “take” was illegal.
The litigation was stayed pending the state’s receipt of an ITP from the federal government. As part of the agreement staying the case, a number of interim management measures were implemented. Many of these measures were formally incorporated into the state’s Risk Assessment and Mitigation Program (RAMP) which was codified in regulation on Nov. 1, 2020. Under RAMP, the Department along with the California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group (Working Group) assess and manage risk of marine life entanglement with fishing gear associated with the commercial Dungeness crab fishery. RAMP will form the basis for the ITP when it is issued.
The Working Group is comprised of commercial and recreational fishermen, environmental organization representatives, members of the disentanglement network, and state and federal agencies. In addition to the regulatory measures, the fleet took proactive measures and beginning with the 2016-17 season helped inform and develop a best practices guide to minimize whale entanglement risk.
These efforts have proven effective as the California commercial Dungeness crab fishery entangled zero blue whales, zero Pacific leatherback sea turtles and only one humpback whale in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons. Coastwide, entanglements from all sources dopped in 2019 and 2020 to 26 and 17 respectively. This in the face of increasing whale populations, in particular humpback whales, along the U.S. West Coast which are estimated to be increasing at roughly 7.5% per year.
While the fishing industry should be applauded for its proactive and highly effective approach to minimizing impacts when fishing around whales, for some it is still not enough. In February of this year, legislation was introduced in the California Assembly which would have required, on or before Nov. 1, 2025, ropeless fishing gear to be used “when taking any species of fish for commercial or recreational purposes in any trap fishery, including, but not limited to Dungeness crab, spiny lobster, and spot prawn.”
Commercial and recreational fishing interests in California argued the bill was unnecessary and that ropeless gear technology is currently infeasible for use in California. The bill failed to move forward. Since then, we have fielded several questions about the bill In particular, (1) why is this bill unnecessary? and (2) why ropeless fishing gear is not currently feasible?
The Bill is Unnecessary
The recently implemented RAMP regulations have made a repeat of 2015 and 2016 functionally impossible. RAMP requires the director of the DFW to close the commercial Dungeness crab fishery in certain situations and gives him/her discretion to take appropriate management actions, which could include a delayed opening or early closure, if the risk of entanglement is deemed too high.
The Working Group convenes on a regular basis, beginning about two to three weeks before the scheduled Nov. 15 opener, to review up-to-date information on whale concentrations and locations, ocean conditions, forage conditions, fishery dynamics, etc.
During the most recent season (2020–21), the opening was delayed until Dec. 23rd and was closed early, on June 1, 2021, to protect “Humpback whales, blue whales and Pacific leatherback sea turtles based on the best available science,” according to the Working Group. Additionally, only two humpback whales were confirmed to have been entangled by California commercial trap fishing gear during 2020, one Dungeness crab trap and one spot prawn trap.
In short, RAMP and changed fishing behavior, following the best practices guidelines, are working. A Lost or Abandoned Dungeness Crab Trap Gear Retrieval Program has been operating and removing gear from the water when whales are present. The legislation was a proposed solution for a problem already solved.
Ropeless Fishing Gear is Not Feasible
California commercial seafood harvesters have participated in early testing of various systems designed to further reduce the risk of entanglements. One such system is ropeless fishing gear. Different designs were tried and none of them were found to be functional.
The most common user complaints were failure of the gear to deploy and the length of time it took to recover, retrieve and store or redeploy the gear. Other concerns centered on safety, costs, impacts to vessels fishing other gears or fisheries, and potential enforcement issues.
The system tested requires the captain or crewmember to send a signal to the trap which would result in the buoy being released. This would allow the captain to retrieve the buoy and pull the trap up from the seafloor. In some cases, the buoy is attached to a rope which is attached to the trap. While there is rope involved, there is no vertical line until the buoy is released from the trap. When the buoy fails to deploy, that trap will operate as ghost gear while littering the sea floor. Another possibility is that the buoy will eventually deploy due to the corrosive nature of salt water; and if this happens when whales are present, there is a significant risk of entanglement and negative repercussions to the entire fleet for such interactions.
Fishermen who tested ropeless fishing gear also complained about the additional time required to service the gear. Crabbers depend on consistency in pulling their gear. They will typically spread their gear out over a distance that ensures a steady work environment of pulling the pot, emptying the pot, sorting the catch and returning females and undersized crabs, rebaiting the pot and repacking the buoy and rope before resetting or stacking the pot.
Having to be within a certain distance of a ropeless pot before the buoy deploys greatly slows down the operation. In crab fishing, time is money: any delays will reduce productivity, increase costs, and impact already slim margins. Having to alter course to retrieve a buoy that cannot be seen until it rises to the surface, especially in rough weather, also raises a serious safety concern.
Additionally, there were concerns that ropeless systems could have dramatic impacts to a vessel’s stability and crew’s safety when stacking or moving gear.
Other concerns involve costs, impacts to vessels fishing other gears or fisheries, and potential enforcement issues. Presently, ropeless fishing systems are extremely cost prohibitive and at a mid-range cost of roughly $1,000 per trap, will put many out of business. There is also concern related to other fishermen/fishery participants. How will the location of ropeless fishing systems be known to other fishermen, particularly those using other gear types?
Fishermen using other legal gear types also run the risk of capturing ropeless gear, which could lead to gear loss or safety concerns for the crew on those vessels; for example, if a trawler or a purse seine vessel were to catch ropeless gear in their trawls or sets. Potential issues could arise in terms of enforcing trap limits, service time intervals, and presence of required trap tags as well as ensuring MPAs or other closures are being avoided.
What has followed the discussion on the shortcomings of ropeless fishing gear is a question about why the bill was even introduced given the information provided above. The short answer is the author of the bill neglected to consult the fishing industry before introducing it. Had he done so, he would have quickly learned that some of the underlying assumptions the bill was based on were simply unfounded.
West Coast commercial and recreational harvesters are conservation minded. Our futures depend upon healthy and thriving marine ecosystems. We are blessed to work on the ocean and are reminded every day of the beauty and diversity it supports. We do not fish carelessly and are cognizant of the responsibility that comes with our profession.
We are also innovators with a long history of designing and developing gear improvements and/or modifications with conservation in mind. From the development of the Medina panel on purse seine vessels, to the use of acoustic pingers on drift gill nets, to the use of circle hooks in longline fisheries, our ingenuity is limited by technology and functionality.
In the future, there may be a gear manufacturer who designs a trap taking fishermen’s needs and feedback into account that addresses all of the concerns raised above. But that day has not yet come.
Mike Conroy is the Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), and its sister organization, Institute for Fisheries Resources. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by cell phone: (415) 638-9730.