Lawsuit seeks to save them all
SAN FRANCISCO, California––Saying “Dungeness crab dinners shouldn’t come with a side of whale,” Center for Biological Diversity attorney Kristen Monsell on October 3, 2017 sued the California Department of Fish & Wildlife for allegedly failing to protect whales and sea turtles from entanglements in crabbing gear.
From a vegan or vegetarian perspective, people should not be capturing and boiling crabs to death for dinner, either. But while Monsell’s lawsuit invokes the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act on behalf of whales and sea turtles, there is a lot in it to potentially help Dungeness crabs, too, if only because effective regulation of crabbing could mean anywhere from tens of thousands to millions per year fewer crabs might be caught
Charged Monsell, “The Department’s permitting, management, oversight, and authorization of the California commercial Dungeness crab trap fishery is causing take of federally threatened and endangered humpback whales, endangered blue whales, and endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtles.”
“Deadly obstacle course”
Crab pots, Monsell wrote, “create a dangerous, and often deadly, obstacle course for whales and sea turtles. Entanglements can occur when the animals encounter the buoy lines that extend from a trap set on the ocean bottom to a buoy at the surface, or in the lines between buoys at or near the surface.
“The animals have been observed with line wrapped around their flippers, tails, mouths, and bodies,” Monsell said. “Entanglements can result in drowning, or if animals do not immediately drown, the remaining entangling line often impedes basic movement, feeding, and reproduction, causes chronic infection, damage to bone and muscle, and greater vulnerability to predators.
“These large animals can also drag heavy Dungeness crab traps hundreds of miles on migrations,” Monsell continued, “sapping them of strength, and interfering with breathing, feeding, and reproducing.
“Continued entanglements not only threaten individual animals,” Monsell said, “but also threaten the recovery of imperiled humpback whales, blue whales, and leatherback sea turtles.”
Often tied by nylon ropes, as the Monsell lawsuit highlights, the fates of crabs and great whales are linked as well by oceanic hazards including deadly domoic acid releases from algal blooms and other apparent effects of global warming.
But people tend to care that great whales are in hot water, with rising marine temperatures disrupting their feeding and migration patterns. Few people, by contrast, have second thoughts about boiling crabs alive, despite a growing mountain of data demonstrating that they do feel pain.
Crabs are eaten, whales mostly not
Crabs constitute 20% of the total weight of marine crustaceans caught, farmed, and consumed worldwide, a whopping 1.5 million metric tons per year.
Great whales by comparison are among the most protected of species, legally hunted only by a few hundred Japanese, Norwegians, and Icelanders.
No one tries to kill whales by roping them, unless possibly off South Korea, where whales may not be hunted, but if drowned in fishing gear may be legally landed and sold for meat.
Yet, as the Monsell lawsuit spotlights, whales are increasingly often fouled in lines attached to crab traps, lobster traps, and fishing nets––and not just by commercial fishers and crabbers. Recreational fishing and crabbing also takes a visible toll.
Nets & lines
Globally, estimates the British-based Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society, fishing gear and traps set for shrimp, crabs, and lobsters accidentally kill about 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises per year.
This includes the toll from drift nets, purse seines, and pair trawling, in which two vessels drag a net between them, and from “ghost nets,” meaning nets that have been lost by fishers but remain afloat, snagging marine life of every sort.
Compared to the global estimate, the 71 whales known to have become entangled in West Coast crabbing and fishing lines in 2016 might not seem alarming. But this was nine times the known annual average since 1982, and the third new record number of entanglements reported in only three years. Further, the entanglements that are documented are believed to be just a fraction of those that actually occur.
Explosive rise in crabbing
The source of a line in which a whale is entangled seldom can be identified. The numbers of whales entangled in lines which were specifically identified with West Coast crabbing, however, doubled from 11 in 2015 to 22 in 2016, and may continue to rise, parallel to explosive growth in both commercial and recreational crabbing participation.
Wildlife law enforcement agencies believe much of the growth in “recreational” crabbing reflects increased Dungeness crab-catching for illegal resale. This activity appears to be market-driven.
California sold 556 commercial crabbing permits in 2016, nearly 10 times as many as 40 years earlier. California commercial license holders may set from 175 to 500 crab pots at a time, depending on boat size. Altogether, California commercial crabbers set about 174,000 crab pots per year.
High bag limit but big demand
Recreational crabbers may set as many pots as they want in California, with a maximum of 60 pots allowed to be aboard chartered crabbing vessels, and a bag limit of 35 rock crabs or 10 Dungeness crabs per day per crabber.
Despite the growth in the numbers of commercial crab permit holders and the big recreational bag limit, however, crabbing in California has in recent years been hard-hit by releases of toxic domoic acid from algal blooms, causing repeated closures or non-openings of crabbing seasons.
This has pushed crabbing activity northward, where algal blooms are fewer. But restrictions on commercial crabbing put in place to protect the crab population mean that commercial license holders cannot fill all the market demand for crab meat.
More amateurs than pros
Oregon now issues just 335 commercial licenses per year to catch Dungeness crabs, down from 433 in 1995. Oregon commercial crabbers may set either 200, 300, or 500 crab pots per day, depending on boat size.
Washington issues 247 commercial crabbing licenses, down from more than 400 per year in the 1970s. Washington commercial license holders in Washington are allowed to set only 100 crab pots per day.
Cumulatively, West Coast commercial crabbers appear to set fewer than 400,000 crab pots per year.
Half a million or more Californians, Oregonians, and Washingtonians hunt crabs recreationally, 250,000 of them on Puget Sound, where the known recreational take represented “47.2% of the state share of the Puget Sound Dungeness Crab resource in 2015,” according to Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife data.
Crabbing for covert resale
Oregon “recreational” Dungeness crabbers are allowed to set three crab pots per day, with a bag limit of 12 male crabs. Washington “recreational” Dungeness crabbers are limited to setting two crab pots per day, with a limit of four crab pots aboard any recreational vessel, and a daily bag limit of five male crabs.
Despite the lower Washington bag limit, soaring participation in crabbing on Puget Sound in recent years has alarmed the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, and has called into question just how much of the activity is really recreational, relative to crabbing for illegal sale.
An amateur could legally catch 700 crabs
Explains a Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife web site, “Currently unrestricted opportunity allows a person to harvest 250 crabs in the 50-day summer season and potentially another 450 crabs in the winter season.
“In the 2015 season,” the site continues, “4,796 recreational fishers reported catching over 40 crabs, 933 caught over 75, and 247 caught 100 or more,” according to voluntary self-reporting.
What all of this means to whales is that about two-thirds or more of the million-plus crab pot lines they may encounter along the West Coast are left by nominal amateurs, who not only appear to set the most pots, but may also be the most likely to lose or abandon crab pots through inexperience and inability to check pots on a daily basis.
Lost crab pots may continue to catch crabs, who eventually die inside them, for years. Lost crab pot lines meanwhile can ensnarl whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, and sea otters all the while.
Bounty for lost crab pots
California Governor Jerry Brown on September 24, 2016 signed legislation that encourages fishers and crabbers “to collect abandoned and lost crab pots in the off-season for a bounty, paid for by those who lost the gear,” summarized Ellen Knickmeyer of Associated Press.
“The measure bars fishers who fail to pay for recovered gear from receiving a vessel permit for the next crabbing season,” Knickmeyer explained.
But that does not necessarily mean much to “recreational” crabbers who work from their own small boats and may not hunt crabs every season.
“It is not clear why California’s coast is experiencing a spike in the number of whales spotted tangled up in crabbing gear,” Knickmeyer added, “except for increased convergence of whale feeding and migrating routes and crabbing.”
National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration data indicates that 13 whales are known to have become entangled in California waters south of Santa Barbara in 2016, plus two more in Mexican waters; 52 along the central coast between Santa Barbara and San Francisco; and only four more total, including two off northern California, one off Oregon, none off Washington, and one off British Columbia.
Humpbacks most often seen
But the frequency of observation may more closely coincide with the numbers of whale-watching vessels and recreational boaters in oceanic waters, than with actual frequency of entanglement.
Fifty-four of the entangled whales seen in 2016 were humpbacks, the species most popular among whale-watchers, up from 35 in 2015. Four blue whales became entangled, up from one in 2015. Twelve grey whales, the species most likely to forage for crabs in competition with humans, are known to have became entangled in 2015, but only three grey whales were seen entangled in 2016.
Trump administration killed entanglement rule
The Donald Trump administration does not seem to be concerned about whale entanglements generally, having on June 13, 2017 rejected a proposed new National Marine Fisheries Service rule meant to limit the numbers of endangered whales and sea turtles caught accidentally in fishing nets off the West Coast.
Explained Associated Press, “The rule would have applied to fewer than 20 fishing vessels that use mile-long fishing nets to catch swordfish off California and Oregon. The change would have shut down drift gillnet fishing for swordfish for up to two seasons if too many of nine groups of whales, sea turtles or dolphins were caught in the nets.”
East Coast entanglements
The entanglement problem is scarcely limited to California waters, or to the West Coast. Up to 70% of all North Atlantic humpback and endangered right whales have been entangled by commercial fishing gear at some point in their lives, according to the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies.
This in turn can jeopardize the lives of would-be whale rescuers.
Newfoundland whale researcher Jon Lien (1939-2010), and his team, “rescued over 1,000 humpback whales from fishing gear without anyone sustaining a serious injury,” recently recalled Oceanic Alliance president Roger Payne.
Rescuer Joe Howlett
But Payne, best known for co-discovering humpback whale “singing” in 1967, wrote in memory of Joe Howlett, a lobster fisher who cofounded the Campobello Whale Rescue Team in 2002.
Howlett, 59, was killed on July 5, 2017 by an apparently accidental tail-flip from an endangered northern right whale he had just freed from ropes off Campobello Island, New Brunswick, assisted by personnel from the New England Aquarium, the Canadian Whale Institute, and Dalhousie University.
Fines for unauthorized rescue, but not for losing gear
Payne warned that unauthorized would-be whale rescuers can be heavily fined. For instance, Robert J. Eldridge of West Chatham, Massachusetts in July 2008 found himself charged with alleged Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act violations which could have cost him $100,000 and a year in jail, after only partially succeeding in freeing a humpback whale from his gill nets. The whale swam away still ensnarled in 20 to 30 feet of line, according to two National Marine Fisheries Service observers who witnessed the incident.
Eldridge eventually plea-bargained a fine of $500.
Had he “only” abandoned a crab or lobster trap, or fishing gear, but reported losing it, in most jurisdictions he would not have been fined at all.