Dungeness crab fisherman expand testing of pop-up traps amid CA's continuous early season closures

ByTim Didion and Dan Ashley KGO logo
Wednesday, May 22, 2024
Crab fisherman expand testing of pop-up traps amid season closures
Special pop-up crab trap systems, designed to avoid entanglements with whales, may be the key to saving the continuously shrinking season.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- For Brand Little and the crew of the Pale Horse, fishing for Dungeness crab is an increasingly tight business. Like the rest of the fleet, he's watched the crabbing season shrink, with early closures meant to protect migrating whales from becoming entangled in trap lines. But this season, he's still pushing his traps into the sea, weeks after last month's official closing.

It's part of an experimental program that's now expanded to more than two dozen boats. All using special pop-up trap systems, designed to avoid entanglements.

"It's a lot more work. Takes maybe three to four times as long as traditional gear. It's not easy, but what we've been going through isn't easy either. I mean, we've had 80% of our opportunity taken away," Little said.

While it's lying on the ocean floor, the boat is able to locate the individual trap, and then trigger the release using a remote device. The buoy shoots to the surface, carrying the line with it. The crew retrieves the line and pulls up the trap, limiting the time a whale could come in contact with it.

Little was one of two beta testers.

RELATED: CA's shortened commercial Dungeness crab season closes early to protect whales

"I set out to do it, actually, to disprove it, you know, because nobody could speak why it wouldn't work, just that it wouldn't work. So I said, I'm going to go. I'm going to go do it and say why it won't work. And I had my words, because it did work," he said.

Several nonprofits are involved in the program, which is generating data to be presented the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Geoff Shester, Ph.D., is a senior scientist with the group Oceana.

"I definitely think this spring season and the experimental fishing permits is a tipping point in the whole development of this pop-up gear for the Dungeness crab fishery. We've gone from having just two fishermen really kind of pioneer and develop the method and the technique. And this is the first time that it's actually being used at scale," he said.

But while the permitting program is expanding, many fishermen argue that it also has limitations. Some are concerned about the technology becoming mandatory, even in the months when whales are not present in large numbers, potentially raising costs, and limiting their catch during peak season.

Researcher Kim Sawicki is collecting data on the trial with the group Sustainable Seas.

MORE: CA salmon season closed for 2nd consecutive year, threatening livelihoods of Bay Area anglers

"It should never be a required gear type, ever. And I've said that for years, you know. In situations where we're giving back opportunity that was taken away due to a closure, it should just be an option in the toolbox," Sawicki said.

But she says early results show a high success rate with few gear failures so far. And if the popup systems win approval, they hold the promise of re-extending the back half of a typical crabbing season by several months, allowing fisherman to recover at least part of the opportunity cut short by efforts to protect migrating whales.

"This is the bare bones we can operate. Some would argue that it's not even good enough. But what we had this year, if we can get some of that access back in the spring with the popup gear, we may survive. I don't see us surviving without it," Little said.

A battle both for economic survival, and the health of species off our coast.

Now Streaming 24/7 Click Here