Crab­bers use GPS to find whale-snag­ging gear

Record num­ber get­ting caught in buoys, lines

Las Vegas Review-Journal (Sunday) - - NEVADA & THE WEST - By Ellen Knick­meyer

HALF MOON BAY, Calif. — Fish­er­man Jake Bunch leans over the side of the fish­ing boat “Sadie K,” spears his catch and reels it aboard: an aban­doned crab pot, dan­gling one limp lasagna noo­dle of kelp and dozens of feet of rope, just the kind of fish­ing gear that has been snar­ing an in­creas­ing num­ber of whales off U.S. coasts.

Con­firmed counts of en­dan­gered or threat­ened species of whale en­tan­gled by the ropes, buoys and an­chors of fish­ing gear hit a record 50 on the East Coast last year and tied the record on the West Coast at 48, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion. The ac­ci­den­tal en­tan­gle­ments can gouge whales’ flesh and mouth, weaken the an­i­mals, drown them or kill them painfully, over months.

This year, Bunch is one of small num­ber of com­mer­cial fish­er­men out of Half Moon Bay and five other Cal­i­for­nia ports who headed to sea again after the West Coast’s Dun­geness crab sea­son ended this sum­mer.

The Cal­i­for­nia fish­er­men are part of a new ef­fort us­ing their cell­phones’ GPS and new soft­ware pin­point­ing ar­eas where lost or aban­doned crab­bing gear has been spot­ted. They re­trieve the gear for a pay­ment — at Half Moon Bay, it’s $65 per pot —be­fore the fish­ing ropes can snag a whale.

Es­pe­cially stormy weather this year has meant more way­ward crab­bing gear than usual, Bunch said.

Bunch spots the al­gae-black­ened buoy of his first derelict crab pot of the day just after a hump­back sur­faces near the Sadie K.

Bunch uses his phone to snap a pic­ture of the spot, cap­tur­ing its lo­ca­tion via the GPS set­ting. Then he hauls in the crab pot and re­moves the owner’s tag in­side that Cal­i­for­nia man­dates. He tosses the lone live crab in­side the pot back into the wa­ter — it’s the off­sea­son.

The crab gear goes back to Bunch’s port, which charges the orig­i­nal own­ers $100 for re­turn­ing the lost gear — a bar­gain, com­pared to the $250 a new pot costs.

Cal­i­for­nia fish­er­men and port of­fi­cials work­ing with the Na­ture Con­ser­vancy en­vi­ron­men­tal group de­vel­oped the pro­gram, de­signed to be af­ford­able and easy enough for ports to man­age on their own.

Dun­geness crabs bring in tens of mil­lions of dol­lars in rev­enue in a good year. But they also are the largest iden­ti­fi­able source of fish­ing gear en­tan­gling whales on the West Coast. Crab pots and the lines can get car­ried away by waves or by ves­sels that ac­ci­den­tally snag them. Some­times fish­er­men aban­don their pots or lose them.

On the East Coast, mean­while, lob­ster traps and gill­nets are among the cul­prits in whale en­tan­gle­ments.

On both coasts, fish­er­men and oth­ers reg­u­larly join mis­sions to cut free whales found tan­gled in gear. Last July, a Cana­dian fish­er­man was killed while res­cu­ing an At­lantic right whale snagged by lines.

Clearly, “tak­ing gear off the whales is not the so­lu­tion to the prob­lem. At all,” said Justin Viezbicke, who tracks West Coast en­tan­gle­ments for NOAA fed­eral fisheries. The an­swer is “pre­vent th­ese things from hap­pen­ing in the fu­ture.”

Eric Risberg The As­so­ci­ated Press

Jake Bunch, left, and Tom Dempsey of the Na­ture Con­ser­vancy haul up an aban­doned crab pot Aug. 7 off Half Moon Bay, Calif., part of an ef­fort de­signed to re­move fish­ing equip­ment that can en­tan­gle en­dan­gered species of whales.

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