Dungeness crab fishermen struggle to survive as whale populations swell along the California coast.
Every year, state regulators delay the start of the traditional November 15 commercial crab fishing season because whales may become entangled in minefields of ropes that stretch from undersea traps to floating buoys. This year alone, it has been postponed several times due to continued whale migrations. It’s finally open on Saturday—the number of crab pots will be limited to half the usual number.
In response to the shrinking season, crab fishermen and scientists are working furiously to come up with solutions to the problem.
One of the new high-tech designs being tested involves tying the rope to the crab cage so that it only pops to the surface when triggered by a timer or an audio alert sent by the fishing vessel, allowing the crew to lift the crab cage. Allow for quick recovery.
But two veteran Bay Area fishermen, Bland Little and Steve Mertz, have also come up with potential low-tech solutions already available at their boatyard.
He argued that developing an expensive gadget was overthinking the solution and created a simple modification of the traditional crab cage. They say the nostalgic delicacy can be put back on next year’s holiday menu.
“We have to adapt or die,” Little said.
The duo’s redesign is an old-fashioned crab cage with the top half removed, essentially converting from a trap to a “scoop.” Little and Mertz say they would encourage fishermen to leave the traps set rather than leaving them unattended for days.
Constant harvesting of crabs from traps has reduced the number of underwater pots and lines from up to 450 to 60 per boat, requiring fishermen to constantly monitor and move when whales are sighted. Once most whales leave for the season in late December, Little and Mertz say crews will return to traditional high-yielding gear.
In exchange for adjusting fishing methods and reducing yields earlier in the season, fishermen can once again benefit from a favorable fall season.
Their ideas are rapidly gaining the attention of fellow fishermen, regulators and scientists.
“It sounds like a great solution,” says marine biologist Jarrod Santora of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southwestern Fisheries Science Center in Santa Cruz.
While some fishermen seem intrigued, others worry that the concept may not be equally profitable for all fishermen’s business models.
Dick Ogg, fisherman and Bodega Bay representative of the Dungeness Club Task Force, a state advisory board, said: Ogg said the bigger boats have more crews and use more fuel, so they may not make enough money even with smaller catches.
Dungeness crab has long been one of California’s oldest, most valuable and sustainable catches, and “is the backbone of our fishery,” Santora says.
But commercial fishing hasn’t been good for whales. If the largest animal on earth becomes entangled in a crab’s rope, it can be severely injured, infected, and sometimes even killed. In 2016, 22 of his record 48 confirmed whale entanglements off the West Coast were found to be from Dungeness his crab fisheries.
Recently, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) delayed the start of the commercial crab season until January 1st.
Hence the race to come up with a fix.
One of the big issues is the cost of crab pots. The old fashioned one costs about $200. A person equipped with electronic magic can get the fisherman back her $2,500.
“Economically, it’s not feasible at this point,” Santora said.
Also, pots can be lost or not fully deployed, leaving tangles of loose rope in the water column. In addition, fishermen complain that the new gear slows them down.
Mertz, 55, from San Jose, who lives in San Carlos, inherited his love of fishing from his late father, who passed the boat on to his son.
He is in the ocean year-round, fishing in all seasons, and despite the weather, said he plans to launch on Saturday. I also do volunteer work to check the health of the population.
Little, 49, took a different route. In 2004, he ran out of credit cards and bought his first boat, despite being prone to seasickness.
Little, with the help of his wife Laura, began selling his catch at a market stand called Little Fish Company. In 2010, he quit his desk job and became a full-time salmon fisherman.
Today, he lives in Auburn and is the captain of the 53-foot Pale Horse, docked in San Francisco. His business has grown much larger than his original stand, selling fresh seafood in his markets to farmers across the state.
The two fishermen have taken part in testing high-tech equipment and are confident that their low-tech ideas will be accepted. They are trying to get an experimental fishing permit from the CDFW to try it out.
A special permit program established this year provides short-term exemptions from state fishing laws, allowing innovations to be tested on a small scale before being deployed at scale.
Ryan Bartling, senior environmental scientist at CDFW, said Melz-Little’s proposal was “an interesting conversation. We’re certainly going to look into it.”
Ultimately, CDFW Director Chuck Bonham will decide the fate of the low-tech concept ahead of the Fall 2023 season.
Little and Mertz hope their ideas can finally turn the tide for local crab fishers.
“We didn’t do this because we were trying to be millionaires,” Merz said. “We do this because it’s in our blood.”