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By Amy Whitcomb on June 8, 2017

Fishing gear is not the biggest contributor to the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” or other accumulations of trash in the ocean, but derelict gear left at sea after a fishing season does create problems. In California, the fishing community itself is creating a solution that improves the health of species and the environment, and the involvement and viability of local communities.

“Achilles heel” of pot fishing

There is typically no by-catch with pot fishing, said Andy Guiliano, a fisherman from Emeryville, California. In Guiliano’s perspective, this makes the Dungeness crab fishery an environmentally friendly fishery.

But Guiliano’s experience has tested this outlook.

“The only Achilles’ heel is, inevitably, gear gets lost during the season,” Guiliano admitted — gear amounting to hundreds of crab pots as well as nets that can affect boat propellers and large whales.

  The “lost and abandoned fishing gear impacts the ocean on so many levels,” said Kirsten Gilardi, director of the , a program of . “It alters underwater habitat, entangles or traps marine wildlife, and obstructs fishermen’s work.”

Off season becomes an opportunity

Dungeness crab boats in California were idle in ports up and down the coast in winter 2015. The season remained closed in most parts of the state after dangerous levels of the biotoxin were detected in crabs.

Domoic acid is naturally produced by plankton. Environmental conditions can make plankton exceptionally productive at times, creating “blooms” and elevated levels of domoic acid. When plankton are consumed by shellfish and other marine life, the acid accumulates in their tissues. Animals higher up in the food chain can end up harboring toxic amounts of the acid. This is when public health agencies intervene — to close fisheries and keep humans who harvest and eat the oysters, crab, fish and other organisms safe from ingesting the biotoxin.

The delay of crab season in 2015 due to domoic acid levels resulted in financial losses to fishermen and no California-caught crab at the market, but some Dungeness fishermen were busy hauling in a different catch instead: lost crab gear.

A group of fishermen stretching from Crescent City south to San Francisco are collaborating with the at the to retrieve lost crab gear from the ocean. Between early November 2015 and February 2016, the Humboldt Fishermen’s Marketing Association and commercial crab fishermen from the San Francisco Bay Area collected more than 500 lost crab pots from coastal waters off Eureka, Trinidad, Crescent City, Bodega Bay and San Francisco. This area represents the state’s top crab-producing region, with more than 16 million pounds of Dungeness crab caught in the 2014-15 season. They sell the recovered gear back to the original owners.

​Dungeness crab recipe for a cleaner fishery

“With an effective gear removal program in place, we can leave the ocean essentially undisturbed, almost as if we were never there,” said Andy Guiliano, the crab fisherman.

Indeed, fishermen have led the proactive efforts toward a cleaner fishery. Using experience, scientific monitoring information, and “trial and error,” according to Kirsten Gilardi, they’ve landed on a way to benefit target species, remove ocean hazards and improve the fishing community’s sense of responsibility and stewardship. While gear recovery has no direct human health implications, it does reinforce how interrelated our lives and livelihoods are with the health of the systems and species around us.

Jennifer Renzullo, Eureka-based field manager for the California Lost Fishing Gear Recovery Project, has accompanied fishermen to record the exact location of the recovered gear, its condition and the number of pots collected.

  “It’s great to see the fishermen themselves taking the lead on creating a cleaner fishery,” Renzullo said. “Not only are they recovering as many lost traps as they can, but they are really taking the time to form the most effective program to encourage legislation. Their goal is to have a fully self-sustainable lost crab gear retrieval program that can be implemented statewide every year.”

The project, conducted as a pilot effort in Humboldt and Del Norte counties, expanded south to San Francisco during the 2015-2016 season after receiving funding from the . Funds are used to pay fishermen for each recovered trap. The fishermen’s associations sell these pots back to the original owner for $75 (a new pot costs between $160-$200), depositing revenue in an escrow account for future gear recovery efforts. Gear that is not purchased is recycled.

In October 2015, California’s voted to recommend legislation creating a permanent statewide crab gear retrieval program based on this model. Citing “the thousands of hard working men and women who make up California’s mighty crab fleet,” Senator Mike McGuire from California’s North Coast introduced and Governor Jerry Brown signed it into law. Wildlife managers, in consultation with UC Davis scientists, are currently determining how best to implement the law across the state.

This blogpost is adapted from a UC Davis news story that ran on February 22, 2016.

Amy Whitcomb is an editor on the web team in Strategic Communications.