Dungeness crab boats in California have been idle in ports up and down the coast this winter. The season remains closed in most parts of the state after dangerous levels of the biotoxin domoic acid were detected in crabs. While the delay has resulted in financial losses to fishermen and no California-caught crab at the market, some Dungeness fishermen have been busy hauling in a different catch instead: lost crab gear.
A group of fishermen stretching from Crescent City south to San Francisco are collaborating with the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine to retrieve lost crab gear from the ocean. They sell the recovered gear back to the original owners, under what they hope will be a financially sustainable model for future cleanups.
“Lost and abandoned fishing gear impacts the ocean on so many levels,” said Kirsten Gilardi, director of the California Lost Fishing Gear Recovery Project, a program of UC Davis’ SeaDoc Society. “It alters underwater habitat, entangles or traps marine wildlife, and obstructs fishermen’s work. As a long-standing program of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, lost fishing gear recovery is essentially a ‘treatment’ for the ocean that can by applied easily by the fishing community.”
500 crab pots collected
Since early November, the Humboldt Fishermen’s Marketing Association and commercial crab fishermen from the San Francisco Bay Area have collected more than 500 lost crab pots from coastal waters off Eureka, Trinidad, Crescent City, Bodega Bay, and San Francisco. This area represents the state’s top crab-producing region, with more than 16 million pounds of Dungeness crab caught in the 2014-15 season.
Andy Guiliano, a Dungeness crab fisherman from Emeryville, said there is typically no by-catch with pot fishing and that it is an environmentally friendly fishery.
“The only Achilles’ heel is, inevitably, gear gets lost during the season,” Guiliano said. “With an effective gear removal program in place, we can leave the ocean essentially undisturbed, almost as if we were never there.”
An expanded group effort
The Cordell Bank and Gulf of the Farallones national marine sanctuaries have partnered on the project to recover lost crab gear from within the sanctuaries and share data on locations of lost gear collected as part of their annual monitoring cruises. People from other sport and commercial fisheries, charter vessels and governmental agencies also have reported locations of lost gear to project leaders so the gear can be retrieved.
Jennifer Renzullo, Eureka-based field manager for the California Lost Fishing Gear Recovery Project, accompanies the fishermen to record the exact location of the recovered gear, its condition, and the number of pots collected.
“It’s great to see the fishermen themselves taking the lead on creating a cleaner fishery,” Renzullo said. “Not only are they recovering as many lost traps as they can, but they are really taking the time to form the most effective program to encourage legislation. Their goal is to have a fully self-sustainable lost crab gear retrieval program that can be implemented statewide every year.”
The project, conducted as a pilot effort last season in Humboldt and Del Norte counties, expanded south to San Francisco this season after receiving funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program. Funds are used to pay fishermen for each recovered trap. The fishermen’s associations sell these pots back to the original owner for $75 (a new pot costs between $160-$200), depositing revenue in an escrow account for future gear recovery efforts. Gear that is not purchased is recycled.
In October 2015, the Dungeness Crab Task Force voted to recommend legislation creating a permanent statewide crab gear retrieval program based on this model.
Earlier this month, Gov. Jerry Brown sought federal disaster relief over the crab-season closure, saying it has resulted so far in more than $48 million in economic losses.
On Feb. 17, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife announced it would continue to keep the commercial Dungeness crab season closed statewide until all or part of the coast is clear of the toxin.