The crabbing industry, a part of the commercial fishing industry that generated an estimated $100 million on California’s North Coast in 2017, has been beset by increased regulation, the effects of climate change and internal negotiations in recent years.
The crabbing season has been repeatedly delayed by state agencies citing concerns about whale sightings, since crabbers’ equipment is known to snag and sometimes kill whales and other sea creatures.
Earlier this year, North Coast crabbers faced yet another challenge: reaching an agreed price with one of the largest wholesalers in the industry. After a weeks-long standoff, the crabbers agreed to sell at $2.75 per pound, though the actual sale price was higher than that.
Certain algal blooms, which are becoming more common as oceans become warmer, can also make crabs dangerous to eat. In recent years, the California Department of Public Health has temporarily barred crabbers from harvesting from Bodega Bay and other areas, citing the health risk of eating crabs with excessive amounts of domoic acid in their bellies.
The most recent industry challenge comes in the form of proposed legislation which would require crabbers and many other fishermen to use “ropeless” traps by the end of 2025 in order to avoid killing or harming sea creatures which can become snared in lines stretching from a trap at the sea-floor to a buoy at the surface. Ropeless traps are summoned to the surface using an electronic transmitter.
Assemblymember Rob Bonta, who represents portions of the East Bay, introduced Assembly Bill 534 in February.
“California is a global leader in technology and innovation, yet we continue to crab with archaic technology that puts our cherished marine wildlife at risk,” Bonta said when he announced the bill. “As we move into the future, we can have both productive crabbing operations and oceans that are safe for whales and sea turtles.”
Whale entanglements reached a height in 2016, with 71 confirmed cases off the West Coast—including 22 involving commercial Dungeness crab gear—according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. While the rate of entanglements has dropped from that year, the rates are still significantly higher than historic levels.
In 2020, the NOAA recorded 17 confirmed whale entanglements on the West Coast, including three involving commercial Dungeness crab gear, one of which occurred off the California coast. Despite the decrease from 2016, 17 entanglements is still a higher rate than any year before 2014. Between 2000 and 2013, the historic average was about 10 confirmed whale entanglements on the West Coast per year, according to the NOAA.
“Entanglement reports may be increasing for a number of reasons, including increasing whale populations, changes in the distribution of fishing effort, changes in the patterns of distribution and movements of whales, and increased public awareness of whale entanglements and reporting procedures,” the NOAA states on its website.
While AB 534 has not moved very far through the approval process, industry groups are rallying against the bill, which they argue is a misguided regulation pushed by ill-informed environmentalists.
In a recent press release, Ben Platt, president of the California Coast Crab Association, an industry group formed last year, says AB 534 “promotes an unproven and unviable fishing method that presents significant operational and safety risks to West Coast fisheries.” In March, the Bodega Bay Fisherman’s Association started an online petition opposing Bonta’s legislation for many of the same reasons the CCCA cites.
The CCCA argues that requiring crabbers to use the new high tech gear would burden crabbers with hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional costs for equipment which they say has a relatively high failure rate. Platt says that the 2015–16 season was “anomalous,” because a warm patch of water that year drove whales, pursuing food, closer to shore and into crabbing gear. Since the rate of entanglements has decreased again, and the industry is working to reduce the number of entanglements while still using roped gear, AB 534 is unnecessary, Platt says.
Kristen Monsell, an attorney with the Centers for Biological Diversity (CBD), one of two environmental organizations co-sponsoring AB 534, doesn’t believe the issue of whale entanglements will be solved under the state’s new regulations on fishing gear—and believes that warming seas may cause more overlap between fishing gear and endangered sea creatures.
“We’ve seen entanglement numbers go up off the West Coast and the East Coast, coinciding with warming waters because of climate change. Unfortunately, changing ocean conditions because of climate change is not an issue that’s going away anytime soon,” Monsell said in an interview.
While Monsell says that recent tests in other parts of the world show improvements in rope-less gear, she acknowledges the technology is not yet totally reliable. Her hope is that AB 534 will drive innovation, bringing down the cost of equipment. Since the requirement wouldn’t kick in until late 2025, there is time to work out the kinks, Monsell adds.
“We recognize that it’s not ready today, which is why the effective date [required by AB 534] is several years out,” Monsell says.
AB 534 is only the latest chapter in the conflict between environmentalists and the crabbing industry. Monsell says CBD started working on the issue after becoming aware of the increased rate of entanglements off the West Coast. CBD joined a state task force with crabbers and other stakeholders, but ultimately left when they decided the discussions weren’t leading to sufficient action.
In 2018, CBD sued the state of California over its crabbing regulations. The next year, CBD reached a settlement with the state and Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, an industry group, which shortened the crabbing season to avoid interactions with whales among other things.
The future of AB 534 is somewhat uncertain due to Bonta’s—the bill’s author and sole sponsor in the state legislature—recent nomination by Gov. Newsom to become the state’s Attorney General. The legislature has yet to approve Bonta for the state’s top law enforcement job.
At press time, AB 534 was listed to be discussed at a Thursday, April 8, meeting of the Assembly Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife.