Oregon Dungeness crab: the fishers' story
Meet the Oregon Dungeness crab fishers
The Dungeness crab fishery has always been a poster child for well-managed fisheries on the North American West Coast, and MSC certification is helping Dungeness harvesters in Oregon reap the benefits of that sustainability. Nick Furman of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission discusses how the fishery limits its impact on habitat and crab stocks, and the benefits brought by certification.
"The Dungeness crab fishery had always been singled out as the poster child for sustainable, well-managed fisheries on the West Coast and in Oregon...MSC was a fairly new concept and we thought that if we could lead the pack, there would be promotional and public relations value."
– Nick Furman, executive director of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission
Why we chose MSC certification
Though they knew they would have to fill in some data gaps and gather additional information going into the MSC process, the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission was already confident the fishery was well-managed and sustainable."The Dungeness crab fishery had always been singled out as the poster child for sustainable, well-managed fisheries on the West Coast
and in Oregon," says Nick Furman, executive director of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission, which represents crab harvesters in the state. "All the conservation groups that put out good-fish, bad-fish lists had given us the green light."The main goal in pursuing certification was to confirm what people already knew, he says, and to reap the marketing and promotional benefits of being the first and – at least for a little while – the only Dungeness fishery with MSC certification.
What sets us apart
Here are a few of the steps the Oregon Dungeness crab fishery has taken towards sustainable fishing:
- Pots attached to individual buoys ensure low impact and minimal bycatch mortality
- Specially-designed pots allow smaller crabs to escape
- Only males are landed; females are returned to the water unharmed
- Biodegradable twine allows crabs trapped in lost pots to escape
- Restrictions on season allow post-molt crabs to "fill out and harden" with minimal harvest pressure
- Limits on the number of harvesters and on the number of pots ensure fishery is not overcapitalised
- New research and stock reference points will ensure stocks remain sustainable long into the future
- Commitment to further research and conservation improvements
Dungeness has always been a very simple fishery. Traps called "pots" are set on the seafloor, with each individual pot attached by a length of line to a buoy to mark its location.
Limited entry to the fishery ensures that there are not too many harvesters on the water and, around five years ago, pot limits were applied when fishers realised they were using far more pots than were needed to catch the available crabs. "It was more an issue of tying up real estate. If your neighbour added a hundred new pots, then you better add a hundred new pots," says Furman. In the end, this effort eliminated upwards of 80,000 crab pots from the fishery.
Rather than using stock assessments to assess the health of the stocks, as most fisheries do, the Dungeness fishery has succeeded for decades using a simple 'size, sex, season' approach: crab pots allow juveniles that are too small (under 6.25 inches) to escape, females and undersized males that are caught are returned to the ocean unharmed, and season closures ensure that crabs have enough time to fill out and harden their shells after the summer molt.
"That's our breeding stock, so to speak. We shut the season down and get off the ocean and let them do their thing undisturbed," says Furman.
The pots also have a cotton twine that biodegrades if left too long in the ocean, allowing the lid to pop open and crabs trapped in the lost pot to escape.
The MSC process required a couple of new practices, namely the gathering of basic stock data. As the first fishery not managed in a traditional stock assessment model to seek certification, Oregon Dungeness did not have some of the basic data many other fisheries do, largely because the 'size, sex, season' system has worked so well across the entire Dungeness range – from the Aleutian Islands to central California – that little work had been done in the past several decades to study the crab populations in the close detail required by MSC standards. The research and funding available to study fish populations had instead gone to examining more vulnerable fisheries, like salmon and groundfish.
So new research efforts to confirm information that was previously only anecdotally known were launched, in order to provide the stock data that is fundamental to MSC certification – as Furman notes, "the MSC process doesn’t leave much room for guesswork." The lengthy effort has resulted in new data and new knowledge which should ensure the fishery remains as sustainable as it has been for many more decades to come.How else does MSC certification benefit the environment?
Economic benefits of MSC certification
This effort should also make an impact on the bottom line, largely due to the new marketing opportunities certification brings. "As the only Dungeness fishery to be certified, we told the crab fleet in Oregon they own that franchise at least for another couple of years, until another Dungeness fishery decides to pursue certification," says Furman.
And though Furman does not think certification has raised the price harvesters are getting for their catch at this point, they have seen some new demand. "Right off the bat there was a significant amount of crab that was sold to meet the demands of the MSC certified market. Crabs from California and Washington couldn’t meet that standard presently because they're not certified," he explains.
Looking down the road, Furman expects certification to become the "price of admission" to the marketplace as major retailers like Wal-Mart move toward sourcing all or most of their seafood from MSC or otherwise-certified fisheries.How else does MSC certification improve economic prospects for fisheries?
Social benefits of MSC certification
As the most valuable fishery in Oregon in terms of landed value, anything that helps the Dungeness fishery is going to have a broad positive impact for the state and its coastal communities. Furman says Dungeness makes up anywhere from 30 to almost 50 per cent of total landed value of all fisheries in Oregon.But, for the crab harvesters, having their sustainability certified also means bragging rights. "We feel like we own the franchise for sustainable fisheries in the major crab fishery arena for the time being, so there's some social value in that," says Furman.
"For years the Dungeness crab fishery was kind of a 'if it's not broken don’t fix it' thing. Nothing in the MSC certification has caused us to change that, though we are looking at things a little deeper," Furman says.
Part of this deeper look at the fishery involves continuing the research and studies that began during the certification process, including studies such as determining that the females who are released are in fact being fertilised.The fishery is also codifying a reference point for landings
, so that they will know to pay attention if landings get and stay too low. Furman says they have never needed this extra measure as stocks have never been in danger of collapse, but, "in applying the principles of MSC, we have accepted that just because we've never needed it and don't think we will, it would still be good to have some mechanism so if landings got below a certain threshold and stayed there for a number of years, we could find a way to slow the fishery down and identify the reason."Learn more at the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission website
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The article above was written by an independent journalist commissioned by the MSC to find out how MSC certification has helped this fishery.