**Crab Fishermen Fear Stricter Regulations to Protect Whales**
**Crabbers Worried About Overregulation Impacting Industry**
In the waters off Waldport, Oregon, Mike Pettis, a veteran crab fisherman, had a rare encounter with a whale. The whale had become entangled in a polypropylene rope used to pull up crab traps. It took Pettis and another man nearly 40 minutes to free the whale, which swam away with a small piece of rope still lodged in its skin. Although this was the only instance Pettis had witnessed in his 44 years of fishing, he fears that proposed regulations to protect whales could have a detrimental impact on the industry.
**The Threat of Whale Entanglements**
Humpback whales, which migrate off Oregon’s coast, as well as other whale species, can easily become caught in the vertical ropes connected to heavy crab traps, dragging them around for months and causing injuries or even death. To address this issue, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission will vote on permanent stricter rules and pot limits that were initially implemented in 2020 to protect whales. These restrictions, which were originally meant to expire after this season, would reduce the number of traps and limit the depth they can be dropped during the spring and summer months, when humpbacks are more likely to encounter them.
**A Turbulent Period for the Crab Fishing Industry**
The debate surrounding whale entanglements in the Pacific Northwest reflects the larger struggle nationwide to find a balance between protecting whales and supporting commercial fishermen. Similar actions have been taken in California and the U.S. East Coast to safeguard whales while minimizing the impact on fishermen. The Dungeness crab fishery is an essential part of the Pacific Northwest’s commercial fishing industry, yielding millions of pounds of crab annually and bringing in tens of millions of dollars. In the 2021-2022 season, Oregon crabbers landed over 17 million pounds of crab, generating a record $91 million in revenue due to high market prices. Therefore, the potential for permanent regulations has caused significant tension among industry stakeholders.
**The Need for Balance**
While the fishing industry fears the potential effects of stricter regulations, fish and wildlife authorities argue that these measures are necessary to protect both whales and the economy. Striking a balance between conservation and recovery of whale populations, as mandated by federal law, while maintaining a thriving Dungeness crab fishery is a priority. Currently, Oregon’s pot limits are enforced from December through the end of the season, with further restrictions during the months when humpbacks are most commonly found along the coast. However, environmentalists argue that these restrictions have not gone far enough in reducing entanglements.
**Environmental Concerns and Proposed Solutions**
Environmental organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council believe that additional measures are needed to effectively reduce entanglement risks. According to Francine Kershaw, a senior marine scientist at the council, the number of traps in the water should be reduced by 40%, and trap depths should be restricted to 168 feet. These rules should also start earlier, on April 15, to align with the peak exposure of whales. However, crabbers argue that the current depth restrictions have already impacted their profitability. For example, after May 1, when crab pots couldn’t sink deeper than 240 feet, Pettis and his fleet transitioned to halibut fishing, causing a significant loss of income.
**The Economic Impact**
Fish and wildlife officials acknowledge that the regulations have some economic impact on the industry but believe it is modest, particularly during the late-season months when crabbing typically declines. However, the concerns of crabbers about profitability cannot be ignored, and finding a solution that balances both conservation and economic interests remains crucial.
In conclusion, the issue of whale entanglements in the Pacific Northwest is a complex one, requiring careful consideration from all stakeholders. It is essential to protect whales and their ecosystems while also supporting the livelihoods of those in the crab fishing industry. Stricter regulations may be necessary, but they should be implemented with an understanding of their economic impact and a commitment to finding solutions that work for both whales and fishermen.