Crabs and Whales
I love crab. I love ritualistically cracking each red-shelled appendage of a fresh, local Dungeness crab and extracting its sweet white meat, slowly savoring every last succulent morsel. As a native Californian, my relationship to Dungeness crab has been long and deep, and as an environmentalist who strives to be an ethical eater, I’ve felt pretty good about feeding from this relatively sustainable fishery – at least until recently.
Every November, I mark the opening of crab season on my calendar and head to a local fish market as soon as the crab boats return from sea with their bounty, eager to indulge my epicurean passion on the new recruits. Dungeness crab is always on my Thanksgiving dinner table, or it’s my contribution to the seasonal potluck feasts of friends, a long tradition for this native Californian going back to my childhood days of crabbing right off the pier in Morro Bay with my grandfather, back when these plentiful crustaceans didn’t even require a boat to catch.
But now my relationship to my favorite food has been complicated by the rapidly increasing number of whales that are becoming entangled in fishing lines along the West Coast, most of them connected to commercial crab traps. My beloved Thanksgiving crab has suddenly been sullied by passing humpback whales getting tangled by crab lines and facing drowning, starvation, or dismemberment, complicating the simple pleasure of a crab claw glistening with drawn butter and bound for my mouth.
Yet it doesn’t need to be that way. There are some easy, common sense remedies that the crabbing industry can employ to minimize whale entanglements – including fewer and weaker lines in the water, giving the whales that do get entangled a fighting chance to break free – and move California’s popular and iconic Dungeness crab fishery closer to sustainability.
Whale entanglements are the main problem preventing the Dungeness crab fishery from getting top marks from the respected Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, which notes the fishery’s consistent catch over 30 years and low habitat impacts. But hurting whales is a big problem that is only getting worse, with the federal government recording 30 entanglements along the West Coast last year, including 21 along California’s coast, up from an average of 10 per year over the previous decade.
This spring, I went to work as a media specialist in the oceans program at the Center for Biological Diversity, which requested and publicized the new federal data, giving me qualms about my taste for crabs. But I can clearly see a solution if the crabbers are willing to cooperate with regulators and conservation groups, a process that begins in earnest with a public hearing this Thursday in Oakland.
The Ocean Protection Council, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and National Marine Fisheries Service is holding a public meeting on whale entanglements to discuss ways of addressing the problem within the Dungeness crab fishery. (It’s from 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. in the Elihu M. Harris Building, 1515 Clay Street, Oakland). Center attorney Kristen Monsell will be there, along with some of our environmental allies, advocating for a pilot program that includes allowing two traps per line; requiring electronic logbooks for better data collection on where and how much gear is set, collected, and lost; and trying weaker lines that could allow more than 70 percent of entangled whales to escape, according to a recent study.
I’ll also be following along, hoping the various sides can find a solution to the conflict between my favorite food and the plight of whales that migrate along our coastline, many of which are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, before I need to decide whether to remove the Dungeness crab from my Thanksgiving plate.
Please, for the love of all that’s sweet and tasty, don’t make me do it.
An edited version of this commentary ran in the Contra Costa Times.