End of the Line

The new pop-up crab traps would sit on the ocean floor until receiving an acoustic signal from a fisherman; only then would they release a line and buoy.

After a slightly better year in 2017, the number of whales getting entangled in fishing gear has gone back up, according to a new report from the National Marine Fisheries Service. Researchers confirmed 105 whale entanglements nationwide in 2018, the latest year for which data is available, noting the number is “much higher” than average.

These findings come as a possible solution emerges out of a collaboration being led by Monterey Bay conservationists, fishermen and fishing gear designers.

On the Pacific coast, whales pass through stretches of ocean that are important for Dungeness crab fishing and they sometimes get caught in lines connecting traps on the ocean floor to buoys at the surface. Technology that is under development would all but eliminate vertical lines and buoys. Using ropeless or pop-up innovations, these new crab traps would sit idly on the ocean floor until receiving an acoustic signal from the fisherman. Only then would the trap release a rope and buoy to the surface.

“We are working with fishermen to see what works and what doesn’t and what allows the fisherman to survive economically,” says Geoff Shester, a Monterey-based scientist with nonprofit Oceana. “The Monterey Bay is the epicenter of the whale entanglement issue.”

In June, the Ocean Protection Council awarded $500,000 for the testing of pop-up gear in the coming fishing season. The money will pay for five prototypes, including designs by Marina-based Desert Star Systems and Watsonville-based McFarlane Marine Services. The money will also go to fishermen participating in the research. “They will test reliability to see if the traps pop up as advertised,” Shester says.

The development of pop-up crab fishing depends on the approval of regulations by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Known as the Risk Assessment Mitigation Program, or RAMP, the new rules were announced in May and are now being revised based on public comment ahead of the crab fishing season that typically opens in November.

RAMP would authorize testing and also give marine enforcement officials new authorities to freeze fishing activity if they identify an increased risk of whale and sea turtle entanglements.

Before commercial deployment of pop-up gear can begin, regulators want to make sure that the technology won’t result in more lost gear littering the ocean. There also has to be a common mapping system so fishermen can find their gear and steer clear of that of others.

A new crab industry group, California Coast Crab Association, is pushing back. Its president, Ben Platt, described the RAMP regulations as “an existential threat to our livelihoods” in a comment to CDFW. “‘Ropeless gear’ is not the silver bullet the department and non-fishermen have been widely promoting it to be,” he said. “It is presently impractical, over-complicated, grossly expensive and would litter the ocean unnecessarily.”

Proponents of pop-up fishing acknowledge the technology is in its early stages but say the challenges are surmountable and that the innovation will be worthwhile. “Consumers want to eat sustainable seafood and they want it to be safe for the whales,” Shester says.

Asaf Shalev is a staff writer at the Monterey County Weekly. He covers the environment, agriculture and K-12 education, as well as Seaside, Marina, Sand City, Big Sur and Carmel Valley.

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