Crab­bers use GPS to find lost or aban­doned whale-killing gear


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 hump­backs, blue and other 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, Mr. Bunch is one of small num­ber of com­mer­cial fish­er­men out of Half Moon Bay, south of San Fran­cisco, and five other ports up and down Cal­i­for­nia 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, Mr. Bunch said re­cently on a gray late-sum­mer morn­ing at sea.

“Makes it all the more im­por­tant to pick it up,” he said.

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

Lean­ing out the win­dow of his boat’s cabin, Mr. 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, the size and shape of a gi­ant truck tire, 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 Mr. 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.

West Coast fish­er­men an­nu­ally lose thou­sands of pots for Dun­geness crabs, which are a sta­ple of Thanksgiving din­ners and com­mu­nity crab feeds across Cal­i­for­nia.

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.”

The surge in whale en­tan­gle­ments has fu­eled ten­sions in Cal­i­for­nia be­tween com­mer­cial fish­ing op­er­a­tors ea­ger to show they are try­ing to tackle the prob­lems and some con­ser­va­tion­ists. Some en­vi­ron­men­tal groups say the state should put in place more manda­tory pro­tec­tion mea­sures, such as block­ing fish­er­men from es­pe­cially im­por­tant wa­ters for whales.


Jake Bunch (left) and Tom Dempsey, of the Na­ture Con­ser­vancy, gather aban­doned crab pots used snare whales that they hauled up off Half Moon Bay, Cal­i­for­nia.

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