Posts Tagged crab fishermen

Nov 24 2015

Crab Fishermen Train as First Responders for Entangled Whales

— Posted with permission of SEAFOODNEWS.COM. Please do not republish without their permission. —

Copyright © 2015

Seafood News


SEAFOODNEWS.COM [Mongabay] Kim Smuga-otto – November 24, 2015


Mid-November marks the start of California’s commercial Dungeness crab season and in the month that follows, crab fishermen spend long hours along the coast checking their crab pots, repairing gear, and making the most of the lucrative beginning to the season. Last year the crab industry brought in almost $60 million in profits, most of that garnered in the first 15 days of the season.

But this October, around 100 fishermen from three ports near San Francisco took time away from their preparations to learn a new set of skills — how to identify, report, and monitor humpback (Megaptera novaeangliae), and gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) trapped by fishing gear. The training is part of a larger collaboration between the fishermen, regulators, and conservancy groups to better understand how and where whales are likely to become entangled and what can be done to minimize the harm done to these animals. It’s an attempt by environmental advocates and those who make a living from the ocean to strike a balance that preserves the industry while protecting the world’s largest mammals.

“No one wants to tangle a whale,” crab fisherman Geoff Bettencourt told Mongabay.

But evidence shows that whales regularly get caught by fishing gear or marine debris. According to a detailed study of humpback fluke photographs taken in feeding and mating grounds in the Pacific Ocean, between 20 and 60 percent of the whales’ tails showed scarring patterns that indicated a past entanglement. And crab gear was involved in nearly half of the west coast whale entanglements reported during the past decade, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries.

Bettencourt is a fourth-generation fisherman out of the port of Half Moon Bay, a small town 30 miles south of San Francisco. In his more than 30 years on the ocean, neither he nor any of the other fishermen he knows have seen an entangled whale. But he has seen them in recent TV news stories and knew his industry had to respond. “If the whales are on an upswing, that’s a great thing. We just need to manage the fishing around that,” he said.

This year’s unusually warm ocean waters have brought whales in large numbers to the California coast, as well as a record number of sightings of whales trapped in or dragging fishing gear. So far, 46 entangled whales have been reported, four times the annual average for the entire continental west coast recorded by NOAA Fisheries between 2000 and 2012.

Unlike whale–boat collisions, which often result in a speedy death for the whale, entanglement can be a drawn-out process. Ropes from crab or lobster pots or fishing nets can catch on the whale’s flippers, flukes, or dorsal fin (for humpbacks) or become enmeshed in the baleen plates in its mouth. Dragging the gear can sap the animal’s strength and leave deep cuts in its skin. Large whales entangled in extensive gear have been spotted repeatedly over the course of weeks or months before disappearing and presumably dying. On the U.S. east coast, entanglement is the leading cause of death for large whales.

“One of the biggest problems facing large whale conservation and welfare is whale entanglement,” Michael Moore, a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution veterinary scientist who has studied whales since 1978, told Mongabay.

The possibility of training the Dungeness crab fishermen to be first responders was suggested by Tom Dempsey, a senior fisheries project director for The Nature Conservancy (TNC), at an August informational meeting for crab fishermen hosted in Oakland by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the California Ocean Protection Council, and NOAA Fisheries. In 2013, prior to joining TNC, Demspey helped the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance organize the training of 60 fishermen by the National Marine Mammal Entanglement Response Program.

The nationwide network is made up of primarily volunteers ranging from those who have attended an introductory session to learn how to document and report injured whales — level 1 — up to those with extensive hands-on training to maneuver a craft close enough to a whale and to be able to cut through the lines — levels 4 and 5. Dempsey likens the level-1 training the lobster fishermen received to a basic CPR course: they may never use it, but if they do encounter an entangled whale, they’ll know who to contact and to do it right away.

“In the past, we’d get notification [from fishermen spotting an entangled whale] after they had come in at the end of the day, we can’t do anything about that,” Pieter Folkens, a level-4 responder for California’s whale disentanglement program, the California Stranding Network, told Mongabay.

Folkens was invited to discuss the network and its goals at a follow-up meeting for crab fishermen in September. He remembered the meeting starting off with the fishermen expressing a lot of acrimony toward NOAA Fisheries. But as he explained that his organization wasn’t out to vilify the crab-fishing industry and that in fact it wanted the fishermen’s help to reduce entangled whale deaths, the atmosphere began to change. “By the end of the day, they were buying us beers and asking us questions,” he said.

This enthusiasm resulted in the October session held in Half Moon Bay and live-streamed to ports in San Francisco and Bodega Bay, 60 miles north of the city. Justin Viezbicke, the coordinator for the California Stranding Network and a level-4 responder, presented an overview of his organization and ways that the crab fishermen could help.

“We want to build out the capacity to respond to these events,” he told Mongabay, adding “we need to have as many people lined up as we can because [entanglements] happen at the most inopportune times.” He noted that the fishermen present at the training would increase his volunteer base by over 10 percent.

The most useful help the fishermen can offer, Viezbicke told the crowd, is to report to his group an injured whale when they sight it and, if possible, to stay with the animal until another boat can arrive. “Once we lose the whale, it’s a needle in a really large haystack,” Viezbicke said.

Also important is to assess the situation, explained Viezbicke: identify the whale, note its condition, what gear is attached, and how. Because fishermen are familiar with the gear, they are well equipped to report this. And the information is valuable beyond saving the whale. “The biggest part of our program right now is documentation and learning about what’s going on out there,” he said.

Figuring out what circumstances lead to crab gear entangling whales is a principal goal of a working group set up this spring by California’s Dungeness Crab Task Force, the government-mandated body that reviews and makes recommendations on the management of the state’s Dungeness crab fisheries. The working group is composed of fishermen and representatives from three government regulatory groups and four conservation organizations.

Based on evidence from the U.S. east coast that whales can avoid lobster-pot lines better when they are vertical and taut in the water than when they are running horizontally or slack, the California working group will study how weighted or floating crab-pot lines behave in the water under different conditions. They plan to test the strength of these lines to find out how easily a whale can break free from them or a whale rescuer’s knife can cut them.

They also want to collect data on the distribution and density of pots, as well as their proximity to whales. To help with this, the coast guard will perform helicopter flyovers during the first weekend of the Dungeness crab season. “We can see right here right now where the pots are, and where the whales are,” Jim Anderson, a crab fisherman and member of both the task force and working group, told Mongabay.

Other fishing ports have requested first responder training sessions, which the working group hopes to organize later in the season. For now, a best practices guide to help Dungeness crab fishermen avoid entangling whales and report distressed whales is available on the California Ocean Protection Council’s website.

Fishermen like Bettencourt believe this collaborative approach is the best chance for the whales, and his industry, to thrive. “The newer generation fishermen realize that the only survivability is in that new way of thinking. It has to be sustainable, it has to be right, it has to have the science to protect it,” he said.

The Dungeness crab season was scheduled to open this year on November 15, but the Department of Fish and Wildlife delayed it indefinitely due to a toxic algal bloom. Andersen told Mongabay that the working group’s ideas will be implemented when the season begins.


Nov 18 2015

Bay Area Dungeness crab fishermen stoic despite financial hardship

PRINCETON-BY-THE-SEA — This was supposed to be the winter Braeden Breton finally realized his dream of running his own crab fishing boat. After putting down $7,500 in April toward a commercial permit, he was counting on earning enough money as a deckhand this fall to pay off the rest and begin setting his own traps after the new year.

Now the indefinite postponement of the commercial Dungeness crab season has thrown that plan into disarray. Like hundreds of other fishermen in the Bay Area, Breton finds himself scrambling to pay the bills.

Breton, of El Granada, and a partner must make monthly payments on the $20,000 they still owe for the permit. He may head north this month in the hope of finding work on a boat in Oregon, where the Dungeness crab season is tentatively slated to open Dec. 1 on the northern half of the coast.

Don Marshall ponders the future of the postponed crab season while moored at the Pillar Point dock in Half Moon Bay, Calif., Wednesday morning, Nov. 11,

Don Marshall ponders the future of the postponed crab season while moored at the Pillar Point dock in Half Moon Bay, Calif., Wednesday morning, Nov. 11, 2015. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) ( Karl Mondon )

“It’s hard on everyone around me, and it’s hard on me as well,” Breton, 23, said of the delay. “I have to keep up with my payments or I’ll lose my permit.”

More than a week after the California Department of Fish and Wildlife shut down the commercial season because of high levels of neurotoxins in the crab, the outlook for California fishermen is as murky as the ocean depths where the prized crustaceans scuttle and scavenge.

All eyes are on the state Department of Public Health, which will release the latest results this week of tests showing how much domoic acid, a naturally occurring toxin caused by a type of microscopic algae called pseudo-nitzschia, remains in the crab. When consumed by humans, shellfish contaminated by domoic acid can cause gastrointestinal illness or, in rare cases, death.

The closure is a tough break for an industry that brought fishermen nearly $67 million last year, as well as for restaurants and markets that sell the delicacy. Consumers will almost certainly miss out on fresh local crab for Thanksgiving, though crab from Oregon and Washington, where domoic acid levels right now are lower, should be available for the winter holidays.

Fisherman Jake Bunch waits for the postponed crab season to hopefully resume while docked at the Pillar Point dock in Half Moon Bay, Calif., Wednesday

Fisherman Jake Bunch waits for the postponed crab season to hopefully resume while docked at the Pillar Point dock in Half Moon Bay, Calif., Wednesday morning, Nov. 11, 2015. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) ( Karl Mondon )

Some fishermen at Pillar Point Harbor near Half Moon Bay are holding out hope that the season could open in time for the lucrative Christmas market, but many worry the delay could continue well into the new year. Experts say domoic acid can linger for months in bottom-dwelling creatures and ocean sediment.

The pier at Pillar Point Harbor, usually bustling this time of year with dozens of boat operators and crew members rigging their vessels, has been quiet. Most of the deckhands who would normally be here either scattered in search of work or never came in the first place.

For now, fishermen are keeping themselves busy catching up on boat maintenance. But many will eventually need to find other work. Some will pursue construction jobs as far away as Sacramento.

Pete the Greek unloads a catch of surf smelt at Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay, Calif., Wednesday morning, Nov. 11, 2015. With the local crab season

Pete the Greek unloads a catch of surf smelt at Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay, Calif., Wednesday morning, Nov. 11, 2015. With the local crab season on hold, his catch was the only activity seen at the pier Wednesday morning. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) ( Karl Mondon )

Don Marshall, a leader of the young generation of Pillar Point fishermen, was working Wednesday on the hydraulic system of a boat he bought for $50,000 in July, a purchase he now regrets. He offered a visitor his left hand, protecting his right, which he broke this summer while salmon trolling. Instead of resting to let the break heal, Marshall kept fishing. He needed the money.

But even this year’s commercial chinook salmon season was poor — largely because California’s historic drought has lowered water levels in the rivers where the fish spawn and hatch. Preliminary figures from Fish and Wildlife show just 114,000 salmon were caught in California, down roughly 25 percent from 2014. And the fish were small at an average of 10.5 pounds, about 3 pounds lighter than the average over the past five years, according to Jennifer Simon, one of the agency’s environmental scientists.

The lackluster salmon fishing will exacerbate the financial toll of the crab closure. And the crab season may not be so great once it opens. Fishermen will likely contend with El Niño storms and prices that are undercut by a lack of holiday demand.

“It’s probably going to be the hardest winter we’ve ever seen,” said Marshall, who at 33 is president of the California Small Boat Trollers Association.

Results from the most recent round of tests, conducted around the end of October, show domoic acid levels were much higher in Humboldt and Del Norte counties than along the Central Coast, an encouraging sign for fishermen in San Francisco, Half Moon Bay, Moss Landing and Monterey.

But a 1997 laboratory study suggested it takes three weeks or more from the point crabs are exposed to domoic acid for the chemical to leave their systems. Many crabs off the California coast are likely still eating snails and other food sources that are contaminated.

Domoic acid is always present in the food web, but at safe amounts, scientists say. This year’s extraordinary levels of the biotoxin were caused by an unusually vast and persistent algal bloom, which was bolstered by record-breaking high temperatures in the Pacific Ocean.

Harmful algal blooms are on the rise around the globe, a phenomenon that could be linked to climate change, said Raphael Kudela, a phytoplankton ecologist at UC Santa Cruz.

Water samples show this year’s bloom has died off along the California coast, though it may still lurk farther out to sea, Kudela said. And the outlook for 2016 is poor.

“We don’t have a crystal ball,” said Kudela, “but our best guess is next year we’ll see another toxic bloom, and it may be as big as this year’s.”

And, while it’s too early to say for sure, the 2016 salmon season may not be so great, either.

“We’re not anticipating a high abundance of fish available for harvest,” said Simon, of Fish and Wildlife.

Despite the gloom, fishermen at Pillar Point are confident in their ability to roll with Mother Nature’s punches. Those jabs and hooks may come in faster, less predictable combinations as the climate grows hotter.

Breton, who began working as a deckhand when he was 16, has no plans to stop fishing.

“This is kind of what I was raised into,” Breton said, “so I don’t see myself doing anything else. You adapt.”

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Oct 29 2015

Crab fishermen volunteer to protect tangled whales

HumpbackWhaleHumpback whales, like this one seen in 2013 from the cliffs at Marina State Beach, are increasingly getting tangled in fishing gear, NOAA reports.(Photo: Jay Dunn/The Salinas Californian, Jay Dunn/The Salinas Californian)


It’s an increasingly common site along the West Coast: a 50-foot-long whale breaking the surface of the water, hundreds of feet of fishing gear wrapped around its torso and fins, cutting into its skin and trailing behind it. If the whale is lucky, a whale entanglement team will find it in time and successfully free it from the heavy equipment. If the whale is unlucky, it may succumb to infection, become too tired to feed, or drown.

A seemingly unlikely ally has emerged in the fight to protect the whales of the West: the fishermen themselves. On Tuesday, Oct. 20, The Nature Conservancy and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration held meetings in three locations along the California coast to train fishermen to be first-responders for whale entanglement. Almost 100 crab fishermen attended the voluntary trainings – nearly a third of California’s crab fleet.

More West Coast whales were caught in fishing gear in 2014 than any other year, according to reports by NOAA. 2015 is on course to break that record, and the Dungeness crab season has yet to begin.

No one knows why reports of entanglements have increased so rapidly.

“I don’t know anyone who has ever seen a whale caught up in gear, even the old-timers,” said Capt. Geoff Bettencourt, a fourth-generation commercial crab fishermen based in Half Moon Bay who attended the training. “But now it’s all over the news. It seems rampant.”

One reason might be the dramatic increase in humpback whale populations, suggested Tom Dempsey, senior Fisheries Project Director at The Nature Conservancy. Another could be changes in whale behavior. Whales seem to be staying in California longer and spending more time close to shore, where most crabbing takes place. But this may not be the full picture.

According to Dempsey, there’s not a lot of data to work with. It’s unclear what types of gear are most likely to harm whales, and the areas with the most reports might not represent where the whales are being entangled.

Dempsey hopes the fishermen can help shed some light on the mystery. “Nearly 100 fishermen participated in our training. Collectively, they log thousands of sea days annually.”

Not only will crab fishermen help researchers understand where and how the whales are being injured, they can help whale entanglement teams locate and rescue whales, acting as front-line triage. At the training, fishermen were taught to document and evaluate the condition of entangled whales, and taught to correctly report their locations to rescue teams.

If the pilot program is a success, Dempsey hopes to hold more trainings. Eventually, fishermen may be taught to tag entangled whales with satellite and telemetry transmitters. This would help entanglement networks locate and rescue whales more easily.

Dempsey said the response from fishermen has been overwhelming. “Usually on sensitive issues like this, everyone retreats to their different sides and there isn’t a lot of collaboration. This has been the opposite. The industry has stepped forward and really wants to be a part of the solution.”

Bettencourt wasn’t surprised by the fishing industry’s response. “People think that all a fisherman cares about is catching fish, and that’s the farthest thing from the truth. If we mess up the ocean, our families suffer. We lose our livelihood. We lose everything. We want to see it healthy more than anyone.”

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