Oregon has extended the restrictions on its Dungeness crab fishery to prevent humpback whales and other marine animals from getting caught in the ropes attached to the crab traps. The state’s fish and wildlife department announced that the measures, which were supposed to end after this season, will now be in place indefinitely.
Whale entanglements pose a serious threat to marine life
Whale entanglements are a growing problem along the West Coast, as the warming oceans and changing currents affect the migration patterns and feeding habits of whales and other marine animals. Humpback whales, which are listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act, are the most frequently entangled species. The whales can get trapped in the vertical ropes connected to the heavy crab traps and drag them around for months, causing injuries, starvation, exhaustion, and even death.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), there were 31 confirmed whale entanglements off the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington in 2020, up from 22 in 2019. Of those, 17 involved humpback whales, nine involved gray whales, and five involved other species. Most of the entanglements were caused by fishing gear, especially Dungeness crab gear.
Oregon’s Dungeness crab fishery is a vital industry for the state
Oregon’s Dungeness crab fishery is one of the most lucrative and sustainable fisheries in the Pacific Northwest, generating millions of dollars in revenue and supporting thousands of jobs. In 2021-2022, Oregon crabbers landed more than 17 million pounds of crab and delivered a record $91 million in crab due to high market prices.
The crab season typically runs from December to August, but it can be delayed or shortened depending on the quality and abundance of the crab, as well as the environmental conditions. The state also implements a biotoxin testing program to ensure that the crab are safe for human consumption.
Oregon’s new rules aim to balance conservation and economic interests
The new rules that Oregon has adopted are based on an agreement reached in 2020 between the state, the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission, and environmental groups such as Oceana and the Center for Biological Diversity. The agreement was part of a settlement of a lawsuit filed by the environmental groups in 2017, alleging that Oregon’s crab fishery violated the Endangered Species Act by harming humpback whales and other protected species.
The rules include:
- Limiting the number of crab traps allowed in the water per vessel to 200 during peak whale season (April 1 to August 14) and 300 during low whale season (December 1 to March 31).
- Prohibiting the placement of crab traps deeper than 100 fathoms (600 feet) during peak whale season.
- Requiring all crab traps to have weak links or breakaway devices that allow whales to free themselves if they get entangled.
- Requiring all crab traps to have identification tags with contact information for the owner or operator.
- Requiring all crabbers to report any lost or abandoned gear within 24 hours.
- Requiring all crabbers to remove their gear from the water by August 14 or face penalties.
The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission voted unanimously on Friday, August 4, 2023, to extend these rules indefinitely, with a review after two years. The commission also approved a $250,000 budget for a whale entanglement prevention program that will include education, outreach, research, monitoring, and enforcement.
The commission’s decision was welcomed by both the environmental groups and the crab industry representatives, who said that they were committed to working together to protect whales while maintaining a viable fishery.