Ocean Currents

When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Go Crabbing

© Ocean Conservancy

What happens when feisty, tough Dungeness crabs meet an even tougher bunch of fishermen? We’ll find out this fall in Discovery Channel’s new series, Dungeon Cove. The show highlights how the Newport, Oregon Dungeness crab fleet and the local community handle the dangers, victories and worries of the fishing season.

It’s clear that Dungeness fishing isn’t for the weak. Not only are the crabs often hard to find, hiding cleverly from fishermen or avoiding cunningly placed traps, but the working conditions are also dangerous. Simply exiting the Newport harbor is difficult at times, when wind and sea state cause waves to pile up and challenge the best helmsmen. Family members on land worry about their seagoing loved ones every day. Layer physical danger on top of economic concerns—many Dungeness fishermen are owner-operators, or essentially small business owners—and you have one tough job.

This thriving fishery currently supports communities from California to Alaska. In 2014, the fishery brought in $212 million, even though the season is short, only lasting a few months per year. Those crabbing communities were hard hit last year when a toxic bloom of Pseudonitschia algae postponed the fishery opening for one month in Oregon and Washington, but five months in California. Dungeness crab and other West Coast shellfish had feasted on these algae, and domoic acid, an algal toxin, built up in the shellfish meats. Domoic acid does not harm shellfish, but it sickens people and other marine life. The fishing season delay put crabbers on uncertain hold, straining their bank accounts and chilling their business purchases.

The fishery is recovering today, but scientists and fishermen wonder what the future will bring. Early research shows that ocean acidification, a growing challenge facing West Coast fisheries and hatcheries, could affect the Dungeness fishery in a few ways. Ocean acidification may cause Pseudonitschia to produce more domoic acid. It also may cause fewer young Dungeness crabs to survive to adulthood, or it could force them to grow more slowly. In fisheries like this, where time is money, ocean acidification could cost coastal communities dearly.

West Coast states are mounting an aggressive response, though. Members of the Pacific Coast Collaborative, including California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, have developed a Call to Action on ocean acidification that invites new signatories to commit to taking actions that improve understanding of ocean acidification in their marine waters, to mitigate causes, and to adapt to unavoidable changes. Other nations, states, tribes and organizations are encouraged to sign the Call to Action and demonstrate their own commitment to meaningful actions that address ocean acidification. Members will be a part of the International Alliance to Combat Ocean Acidification, a network poised to share action plans, knowledge and expand awareness on acidification. We are hopeful that this will lead to even more widespread and urgent action on acidification.

Josh Churchman, a San Francisco Bay area crabber explained recently that Dungeness crabs, too, are “really aggressive.” They’re so aggressive that “if they were 4 feet across, nobody would go swimming. You wouldn’t go wading! They would grab you by the leg and drag you out.” Sounds like it’ll be a fair fight between the crabbers and the crabs! Join us as we tune in to watch the action in Dungeon Cove on the Discovery Channel this fall!

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