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Wednesday, August 04, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Catching killers: Thousands of abandoned crab pots still trapping sea life

By Christopher Schwarzen
Times Snohomish County bureau

David Meister, left, a biologist for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, and diver Crayton Fenn examine crab pots that Fenn has recovered from the seafloor.
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As the flat-bottom boat bobs gently in the water nearby, Crayton Fenn puckers his lips and inhales deeply before descending into the cold blue-green water off Hat Island.

It will be his last breath of fresh air for at least 20 minutes.

While an expedition team waits aboard the 20-foot boat, a trail of bubbles follows Fenn's progress 60 feet below the surface.

It's sunny, close to 80 degrees, and small white clouds fill the sky. But water temperatures in the Puget Sound area this time of year still aren't much higher than 50 degrees. The dry suit Fenn wears protects him from the cold during his dive.

Those aboard the boat wait for evidence of a successful underwater search, recovery and maybe rescue. It's not a human life they're trying to save. It's the future of Snohomish County's Dungeness-crab population.

Fenn is working for the Snohomish County Marine Resources Advisory Committee (MRC), created in 1999 to address ecological concerns in the water and along the county's shorelines. One of the group's tasks is seeking out and retrieving derelict fishing gear and crab pots no longer used for fishing but capable of killing untold numbers of wildlife.

Right on schedule, Fenn's head breaks through the water.

"Three for three," he says.

As a winch on the boat pulls up a length of heavy-duty rope, three rusting crab pots long abandoned or lost come into view. Fenn had freed two live crabs that he'd found inside one of the pots.

Thousands of broken pots

Three pots on one dive is not a bad haul for Fenn and the boat's crew.

Diver Crayton Fenn prepares to head out on his research boat.
But there are thousands of broken pots littering the seafloor off Snohomish County alone, still catching crabs that will never make it to anyone's table. With ever-increasing numbers of crabbers fishing in Snohomish County waters, one question is what impact derelict fishing gear is having on the Dungeness-crab population. The MRC hopes to answer that question and minimize that impact.

"State and tribal co-managers don't really know for sure what's sustainable" said Sean Edwards, a lead staffer for the MRC. "The MRC figured it made sense to tackle this issue before the fishery crashes."

During the next few months, the group, with its members appointed by the Snohomish County Council and with help from the county's Surface Water Management department, plans to remove hundreds of broken pots from the Puget Sound area.

The MRC, along with the Tulalip Tribes, also plans to embark on a study of juvenile crabs followed by recommendations to county and state agencies on how to improve the Dungeness crabs' future.

Between the 1980-81 and 2000-01 fishing seasons, the number of Dungeness crabs harvested from Snohomish County waters increased from about 479,000 pounds to about 2.3 million pounds, according to the MRC. The increase has caused many to wonder how long the population can sustain itself before crashing.

Fenn dives for crab pots on the bottom of Possession Sound near Hat Island, west of Everett.
Sharing that catch are tribal, commercial and recreational crab fishermen. Tribal fishermen are allowed 50 percent of the estimated take each year, and the increasing number of recreational fishermen is competing with a steady number of commercial fishermen for the remaining take.

State officials say Dungeness crabs in Port Gardner near Everett are found in healthy numbers, but much of the data are 10 to 15 years old.

"There's a large [crab] population base in this area that's easily accessible," said David Meister, a state Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist, explaining the lure of the area to crabbers.

That draw can be enough to crowd the waters off Hat Island and Everett. Crab fishermen can be seen dropping their pots into depths ranging from 10 to 300 feet throughout the crabbing season, which varies depending on when mating occurs.

To prevent over-harvest, the state has limited the length of the crabbing season and reduced the number of crabs per recreational license or commercial permit. Crabs must be males at least 6½ inches wide and have hard backs. Soft-shell crabs and females are not allowed to be harvested.

But derelict crab pots are estimated to account for 7 percent of the by-catch mortality of Dungeness crabs, Edwards said. More fishermen means more lost or broken gear, so that percentage will increase unless someone takes the initiative to clean up the pots.

The MRC plans to remove as many pots as it can find in Port Gardner and Port Susan, along Camano Island, in the coming weeks.

Program OK'd by Congress

The Snohomish County MRC is part of the Northwest Straits Marine Conservation Initiative. The MRC's 11 volunteer members represent a cross section of business, government, tribal and public interests.

The Northwest Straits program, which funds and trains MRCs in seven counties along the Washington coast and the Puget Sound area, was authorized by Congress in 1998 at the request of Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state and then-Rep. Jack Metcalf of Whidbey Island.

The need to research and protect Northwest waters, including the U.S. side of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Strait of Georgia, as well as the north Puget Sound area, was recognized at that time as being extremely important, said the commission's director, Tom Cowan.

"We set up the MRCs right away so that the initiative wasn't top-down government," Cowan said. "The MRCs set the priorities for their counties."

With federal and private funding at its hands, the Northwest Straits program reviews the work the MRCs are doing in Snohomish, Clallam, Island, Jefferson, San Juan, Skagit and Whatcom counties. Northwest Straits helps fund local MRC programs, but the MRCs also rely on money from other sources, some of which comes from tribal interests.

Many county MRCs are focusing on gill nets and other commercial-fishing gear. But in Snohomish County, the MRC has made protecting Dungeness crabs one of its leading missions because of the growing importance that crabbing has economically, environmentally and recreationally on the region, MRC board member Kent Scudder said. Scudder, a real-estate analyst, used to be a commercial fisherman and has a doctorate in biology.

"We're the only MRC that's taken on Dungeness crab," Scudder said. "When salmon hit the endangered-species list, all of a sudden, sales of crab traps went up dramatically."

Biologists began fearing crab would be the next species to get hammered now that the salmon fishery was heavily regulated.

"Every year, there's more and more recreational fishers, and so far, [the species] has bounced back," Scudder said. "But the pressure keeps increasing."

How crab pots work

A round or square crab pot, which can weigh more than 100 pounds, is dangled from the end of a small buoy marking its location. Fishermen leave it in the water for a day or two before returning to collect their catch. As crabs are attracted to bait in the middle of the pot, they climb up a ramp, fall into the center and are blocked from escaping.

Each crab pot in Washington is supposed to have a piece of "rot cord" tied to the trap door that prevents a crab from escaping.

Though commercial fishermen lose about 10 percent of their equipment each year, said 40-year crab fisherman Dan Ashby, most commercial fishermen follow the rules and use a cord that dissolves within a few weeks, allowing crabs to push open the trap door and escape.

"The recreational fishery is getting much larger, but many of them aren't keeping records of their catches or equipment," said Ashby, a former salmon fisherman who turned to crab. "They don't know how to use it — that can be a problem."

Ashby said recreational fishermen often lose equipment because their pots don't weigh enough to withstand strong currents. He said strong winds, tides and storms can be enough to pull commercial gear out to sea.

The problem then occurs, Meister said, with recreational pots that often don't have rot cord. Recreational fishermen don't often know the rules, or they don't care, Meister said.

Cowan said the MRC has about $300,000, part of which will go to removing crab pots in Snohomish County and derelict fishing nets in other counties.

Pots found by sonar

When Fenn and others finish scouting Port Gardner with sonar, pinpointing the location of each pot, dive teams will begin recovering the metal traps.

More than 5,000 abandoned pots are estimated to be in Boundary Bay, near Bellingham. An additional 160 pots were spotted in two days in the Padilla Bay area, near Anacortes. A pilot program last year recovered almost 500 pots from throughout the Puget Sound area.

A survey completed last year in Port Susan located more than 650 pots in water depths up to 100 feet. About 60 pots have been removed from Port Susan since then.

In Port Gardner, just a few days of searching turned up more than 100 pots, showing up as bright-orange squares on a computer screen tracking the sonar.

Though the removal of derelict pots protects the species, understanding their habits and habitats may be even more important. The Snohomish County MRC is teaming with the Tulalip Tribes and state Fish and Wildlife Department to develop a juvenile-crab survey.

The group is probably a month away from determining the methodology for completing the study. About two weeks ago, the Snohomish County MRC agreed to study crabs at one site, most likely along the Mukilteo shoreline. Five to eight more sites will be selected for a full study in 2005.

The MRC hopes to map what habitat types support the greatest juvenile density. The information could be used to help the state set regulations for crab fishing and keep abreast of how well the population is doing in the area.

For crabbers like Ashby, however, such studies often are met with skepticism.

"I used to catch 10,000 pounds in two weeks, but now it's 2,000 to 3,000 pounds during the same time," he said.

Ashby related that drop mostly to increased regulations on the industry and more competition.

"To me, a lot to what the state is doing [with its studies] is trying to find out information to use against you," Ashby said.

Those with the Snohomish County MRC can't say such studies won't lead to regulatory changes, but they do say this:

"Our goal isn't out there to limit the fishery," Scudder said. "But should we find a stretch of eelgrass that, if undisturbed, it becomes a space for crab to mature, then what we're doing in the long haul is improving the fishery that benefits everybody."

Christopher Schwarzen: 425-783-0577 or cschwarzen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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