Pulling Lost Crab Gear From the Sea Floor

Millions of pounds of Dungeness crab are pulled in each year from Morro Bay to the California-Oregon border, making for an industry valued at $32 million to $95 million per year. But there’s another catch: Many of the thousands of crab pots set in the sea don’t make their way back. 

Now, a group of fishermen collaborating with the SeaDoc Society are working to remove the lost crabbing gear from the ocean and sell it back to the original owners under what they hope will be an economically sustainable model for future cleanups.

Some of the gear sits conveniently atop the seafloor, waiting to be hauled in and sold back to local fishermen. But some crab pots burrow deep into the ground as the waves and currents move the sand for months at a time. The video below highlights the simple but powerful tools used to dig up the lost gear.

“The most exciting thing about this project is that the fishermen themselves are taking the lead,” said Kirsten Gilardi, director of the California Lost Fishing Gear Recovery Project, and co-director of the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. “They are mobilizing the fishermen to participate, conducting all the transactions of funds and gear, and even realizing financial benefits for their hard work to clean the ocean.”

The UC Davis researchers have teamed up with the Humboldt Fishermen’s Marketing Association and commercial crab fishermen in neighboring Del Norte County. Since late July, they have collected 556 derelict crab pots.

The fishermen are participating in the recovery effort in the off-season. They have concentrated on the waters off Eureka, Trinidad, and Crescent City — the state’s top crab-producing region, hauling in more than 16 million pounds of Dungeness in 2013. 

The peak of the Dungeness crab season, December through February, comes when the Pacific Ocean is prone to massive winter swells, rollicking waves, and energetic rains and wind. It's no surprise crab pots are commonly lost at sea.

Everybody knows there’s gear around. Now we’re working pretty hard to try to keep it cleaned up.
— Kevin Pinto, Commercial Crab Fisherman

The lost pots’ long buoy lines pose an entanglement hazard to other boats, fisheries and wildlife, including whales. The fishermen want to create a truly sustainable fishery, free from these hazards. They are also concerned that prime crabbing grounds are becoming littered with lost and abandoned gear.

“Everybody knows there’s gear around,” said Kevin Pinto, a commercial crab fisherman in Eureka and captain of fishing vessel Seaila. “Now we’re working pretty hard to try to keep it cleaned up.”

The California Lost Fishing Gear Recovery Project has been operating since 2005, mostly in Southern California, where they contracted with sea urchin divers to recover fishing gear. However, ocean conditions on the North Coast aren’t typically conducive to divers. Further, the pots are often lodged deep in the sand and mud and irrecoverable without specialized pumping equipment.  

In Humboldt and Del Norte counties, the scientists and fishermen created an alternative solution to contract divers. Part of a grant to UC Davis from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Fishing for Energy program, subawarded to HFMA, reimburses fishermen for fuel expenses to retrieve the crab pots using boats equipped with pumping gear. Jennifer Renzullo, Eureka-based field manager for the California Lost Fishing Gear Recovery Project, rides along and records the exact location of the recovered gear, its condition and the number of pots collected.

Each pot has an identifiable tag tracing it to the owner. The pot is either sold back to the original owner for $50-$75 (a new pot costs between $160-$200), or recycled. The money collected is set aside to fund future years’ recovery efforts.

“What’s great is the fishermen are talking about how we can make this sustainable to continue this program in the future,” Renzullo said.

In the meantime, the local response has been positive. Shortly after the first cleanup off the Trinidad coast, a fisherman who had helped in the effort was sport fishing in the area for salmon. Over his VHF radio, he heard fishermen talking to each other about how their gear had been getting hung up in other fishing areas but that the waters off Trinidad were so clear.  

“He called me up really excited,” Renzullo said. “It was a great feeling.”

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