California Crab Collab Tests New Fishing Tech to Prevent Whale Bycatch

Fishing gear wrapped around humpback whale     NOAA Fisheries MMHSRP Permit #18786-04

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

A team effort to end whale and sea turtle bycatch is underway in California, and experts hope it can put an end to deadly entanglements in fishing gear that threaten marine populations. The National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, California Ocean Protection Council (OPC), and California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) will be working together to test new, anti-entanglement fishing gear that works well for fishermen while preventing whale death and injury.

Why This Matters: Bycatch, the unintentional entanglement of whales and other creatures in fishing gear, is one of the largest threats to whales globally. Each year, bycatch kills or injures more than 650,000 whales and dolphins. Whale bycatch on the West coast has been steadily increasing since 2013.  In 2018, more than half of the United States’ whale bycatch incidents happened off the coast of California. Many Pacific whales are also facing threats from climate change, shipping, and even naval practices. Whales are crucial in balancing ocean ecosystems and sustain the same species that fishermen are aiming to catch. Preventing the further bycatch of these creatures can not only their lives but also preserve the health of the ocean and the fishing industry.

Bycatch ‘em All

Bycatch isn’t just a whale problem. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reports that bycatch threatens many other species, including New Zealand sea lions, Mediterranean sperm whales, vaquita porpoises, the rarest marine mammal in the world. For every shrimp caught in the Gulf of Mexico, 2.5 fish are unintentionally caught as well. NRDC is urging Congress to upgrade and improve existing bycatch law and fishing gear requirements. If this new technology is successful, it could be one step closer to achieving better policy.

New Year, New Gear

In a rare moment of unity, this new collaborative project will be an effort between conservationists, the government, and the fishing industry. The new technology will be recommended by the California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group (Working Group) and NOAA. It will focus on reducing the amount of time buoy lines and other potential entanglers are in the water, and reducing the strength of these lines to allow whales and other bycatch victims ease of escape.

Greg Wells, Gear Innovations Project Manager for the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, is optimistic about the collaboration and its ability to generate results. “This cooperative research project presents an opportunity for fishermen in California to experiment with multiple pop-up fishing systems as well as weak link rope systems to provide important feedback and ideas on what can work in the Dungeness crab fishery. These trials will be invaluable to scaling up testing and informing decision making in the future,” he said. All new gear will be tested by expert fishermen, who will provide feedback and suggestions to help fine-tune the technology. The Dungeness Crab industry was chosen to test the new gear after data showed that Dungeness crab fishing gear has been the most common cause of whale entanglement since 2013.

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