Adaptive management in conservation planning

It’s hard to believe that it’s already September and that the end of the year is fast approaching. Over the last few months we’ve made significant progress on development of a Conservation Plan (CP) for the commercial Dungeness crab fishery describing the various efforts and management measures being implemented to reduce the risk of marine life entanglements off Oregon. To date, much of our work has focused on drafting descriptions of the fishery and protected whale and turtle species. Additionally, we have been working to refine our methods for assessing the anticipated incidental take of those species that may be expected to occur under the CP.

In the coming weeks, we will shift gears and tackle another key component of the CP which describes the adaptive management components that are an integral part of the overall CP strategy. Adaptive management is a tool that is commonly used, particularly for large-scale systems, to address uncertainty in conservation planning. This uncertainty may stem from limited data or information on the ecology of the species or its habitat, or from lack of clarity about the effectiveness of various management techniques and their potential impacts on the species. A direct relationship exists between the level of biological uncertainty for a species and the degree of risk that an incidental take permit (ITP) could pose for that species (USFWS and NMFS, 2016).

With regards to whale entanglement and conservation planning across the West Coast, various efforts are taking place by state and federal fishery managers, scientists, researchers, industry members, and other stakeholders to fill some of the critical information gaps in order to effectively address this issue. In Oregon, this includes work to better understand seasonal whale distribution off our coast (see my last post here), analyses to estimate the potential impacts (i.e., reduction in pot-days; a metric equal to one pot fished for one day) of proposed management measures, and collaboration across the West Coast to consider the effectiveness and feasibility of alternative management techniques (e.g., gear modifications or configurations).

The development of a complete CP and ITP application is slated to be finished and ready for submission to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) this winter. While we are working hard to ensure that this CP includes the best available information, many of the efforts to better understand and respond to this issue will still be underway when an ITP is applied for. It is for this reason that adaptive management is such a crucial element.

The CP handbook borrows from the 2009 Department of the Interior Adaptive Management Technical Guide to describe adaptive management as follows (Williams et al., 2009):

An adaptive approach involves exploring alternative ways to meet management objectives, predicting the outcomes of alternatives based on the current state of knowledge, implementing one or more of these alternatives, monitoring to learn about the impacts of management actions, and then using the results to update knowledge and adjust management actions. Adaptive management focuses on learning and adapting, through partnerships of managers, scientist, and other stakeholders who learn together how to create and maintain sustainable resource systems.

As this description points out, partnerships and collaboration are essential to developing an effective adaptive management approach. To this end, adaptive measures will be a key topic at our upcoming crab industry public meetings which will take place in October. At these meetings, we hope to provide information and solicit feedback from industry to design an approach that both minimizes impacts to the fishery, while maximizing the conservation benefit provided to endangered and/or threatened species. Through additional collaboration with NMFS, we will refine this strategy to ensure that it meets the necessary standards.

While this is certainly going to be one of the more challenging components of the CP process, I look forward to seeing much of the work that I have been doing over the last few months come together into a refined strategy that is responsive to new or changing information and circumstances.

References

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service. 2016. Habitat conservation planning and incidental take permit processing handbook. 405 pp.

Williams, B. L., Szaro, R. C., and Shapiro, C. D. 2009. Adaptive management: the U.S. Department of the Interior Technical Guide. Adaptive Management Working Group, 84 pp.

Collaboration is key: Efforts to identify co-occurrence between whale and fishery effort in Oregon

The current pandemic and stay-at-home orders have disrupted so many plans and events, but the crab chronicles continue! (Thanks for the cool name, Stephanie!) I am fortunate to be writing this from the safety of my home, where I’ve slowly been adjusting to this new normal. My work remains much the same, with the majority of my time dedicated to drafting a conservation plan for the Dungeness crab fishery to reduce the risk of whale entanglements in crab gear. While the conservation plan timeline itself remains uninterrupted, there have been impacts to other aspects of the state’s whale entanglement management timeline and certainly impacts being felt throughout the crab and broader fishing industry.

One activity related to whale entanglements that is unfortunately being impacted by current events, is a collaborative research project that has been working to collect whale distribution data in Oregon waters since 2019. The project is a collaboration between Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), Oregon State University, and the U.S. Coast Guard, funded during its first year by the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission and through Section 6 grants under the Endangered Species Act since. The study is utilizing bi-monthly aerial surveys to collect whale presence and absence data over a two year period. However, surveys have not been able to be conducted since March due to the current public health crisis.

The impetus for this project was a significant information gap identified early on by the Oregon Whale Entanglement Working Group (OWEWG), which was convened in 2017. The OWEWG found that knowledge of seasonal whale distribution in Oregon waters is lacking and must be addressed to better understand the spatial and temporal patterns of whale entanglement risk in Oregon. By combining improved data on whale distribution with relatively high-resolution data on fishery effort from ODFW fishery logbooks, maps of entanglement risk can be developed and used to guide more targeted management. In the meantime, preliminary presence/absence data have already been used to inform ODFW staff recommendations for risk reduction management measures that are being proposed to the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission this year.

Additionally, the project involves a citizen science outreach component which encourages ocean users, including fishers, to participate in reporting opportunistic whale sightings through a Whale Alert mobile application. Aerial survey data will inform predictive distribution models describing species distributions relative to environmental conditions, and citizen science data will contribute to model validation. Additionally, vessel-based photo identification and tissue sampling will provide information on whale population structures.

The whale distribution study is critical to making informed management decisions in the future that maximize effectiveness of protecting whales while minimizing impacts to industry. It is also a great example of a collaborative approach to address a challenging issue. I hope that surveys are able to resume soon, when it is safe to do so, to continue collecting this critical information.

Dungeness crab: An Oregon coast icon

As I was getting ready to write this blog entry, I decided to look back at some of my old posts to see what I’ve covered so far. I’ve written about the Dungeness crab management system, current issues facing the fishery, and the commercial fishery season opening process. On multiple occasions, I have emphasized the ecological and economic importance of crab, and the complexities of West Coast crab management. But I realized that my previous posts do nothing to highlight some of the aspects of Dungeness crab that I find the most important and interesting, the long history of cultural and social significance of this crustacean in Oregon and along the West Coast.

In my last post, I wrote that “Every December, palpable excitement fills the Oregon coast as residents anticipate the opening of the commercial Dungeness crab season. To many on the coast, Dungeness crab is at the center of holiday and family celebrations at this time of year.” In fact, this excitement continues well beyond the start of the season and throughout the year.

Visitors to the coast will quickly realize that the seafood industry and working waterfronts are an integral part of Oregon coastal communities that serve to sustain local cultural heritage and connect the community to the environment (Kellner, 2009). The crab industry, in particular, is on display in many Oregon port cities contributing to the popularity of these locations for tourists that are looking for an authentic glimpse at the history and character of the community.

The critical symbolic importance of Dungeness crab to coastal tribes, fishers, consumers, and environmentalists can be seen through the diversity of social and cultural activities that center on the species. For many, recreational crabbing is considered a must-do activity that features heavily in Oregon travel guides, tour packages, and has even been described in several how-to guidebooks dedicated solely to the sport. Additionally, all along the coast and throughout much of Oregon, crab is featured heavily at seafood festivals, crab feeds, and other community events.

While digging into the history of Oregon coast crab feeds and festivals, one of my favorite pieces of Newport history that I found was a collection of photos from the Lincoln County Historical Society’s archive of the Newport Crab Festival which first took place in 1938. In its day, this festival would draw 25,000 visitors to Newport for a free crab lunch and other festivities including a festival court, parade, and prizes (Russell, 2013). This event, the precursor to the present-day Newport Seafood & Wine Festival, is an example of the long history of coupling the abundance of crab on the coast with a desire for community support and coastal tourism.

The iconic status of Dungeness crab which has been known to many throughout history, was formally recognized on June 19, 2009 when Dungeness crab joined the Chinook salmon, Douglas fir, and American beaver as a state symbol of Oregon. With the strong support of fourth graders from Sunset Primary School in West Linn, House Joint Resolution 37 was passed designating Dungeness crab as the official crustacean of the State of Oregon (Oregon Legislative Assembly, 2009). Among other factors, the resolution recognizes the economic value, symbolic importance, sustainable management, and overall deliciousness of Dungeness crab.

It’s exciting getting to live in a community that is so closely tied to Dungeness crab, while working to address some of the issues that are critical for the fishery. In my next post, I will dive deeper into the whale entanglement issue and the steps being taken in Oregon and along the West Coast to address this challenge!

References

Keller, A. A., Simon, V., Chan, F., Wakefield, W. W., Clarke, M. E., Barth, J. A. Kamikawa, D. et al. 2010. Demersal fish and invertebrate biomass in relation to an offshore hypoxic zone along the US West Coast. Fisheries Oceanography, 19(1): 76–87.

Oregon Legislative Assembly. 2009. 75th Oregon Legislative Assembly 2009 summary of legislation. Legislative Administration Committee Services, 214 pp. Available at https://www.oregonlegislature.gov/lpro/summleg/2009SummaryOfLegislation.pdf

Russell, V. 2013. A looking back at the Newport Crab Festival 1949. Coast Explorer Magazine. Available at https://www.coastexplorermagazine.com/features/looking-back-newport-crab-festival-1949

Holiday crab: The start of the ocean commercial crab season in Oregon

Every December, palpable excitement fills the Oregon coast as residents anticipate the opening of the commercial Dungeness crab season. To many on the coast, Dungeness crab is at the center of holiday and family celebrations at this time of year. As crabbers prepare their vessels and gear, fishery managers coordinate with various partners to ensure that a safe, quality product is available to consumers and that access to Dungeness crab is orderly and equitable.

Like other crustaceans, Dungeness crab grow by periodically shedding a chitinous exoskeleton through a process called molting. As adults, crab molt at most once per year, leaving them in a vulnerable post-molt or softshell condition which lasts for approximately two months as the new shell hardens and fills with tissue (Rasmuson, 2013). Ocean commercial crab season regulations are designed to provide some measure of protection during the time of year when molting typically occurs as softshell crab are more susceptible to injury or mortality from handling. By restricting harvest of poor condition crab, handling impacts are reduced and a higher meat yield can be obtained by targeting crab in a hardshell condition (PFMC, 1979).

The first seasonal closure was established in 1948 using crab condition criteria based on shell hardness sampling (Waldron, 1958). Since this time, the determination of open seasons has been a topic of debate due largely to variability in coastwide molting patterns, harvest fluctuations, and socioeconomic considerations. A coastwide season opening date of December 1 and closing date no later than August 15 was first recommended in 1963 (Snow, 1963) and though the season closure date has moved several times, the regulatory season opening date has remained unchanged.

Over time, a number of efforts have been made to improve coastwide coordination of season openings allowing for an orderly start to the crab season. Since 1993, this coordination has taken the form of the Tri-state protocol which details a preseason testing program based on meat recovery and season opening procedure for Washington, Oregon, and California (Didier, 2002). The latest revision of the preseason testing protocol for the Tri-state coastal Dungeness crab commercial fishery, signed in August 2019, is available here.

Today, preparation for the season opening begins in late November as Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) partners with the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission to collect crab for preseason testing. Concurrently, crab are collected from each test station for Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) domoic acid tests. Once the season opening structure is determined, ODFW notifies industry and the public as soon as possible so that there is adequate time to prepare to fish.

In Oregon, fishers are allowed to set commercial crab pots during a 73-hour gear setting period prior to the season opening (OAR 635-005-0485). A gear setting period was first adopted in the mid-1960s at the request of industry to provide equal opportunity to vessels of all sizes, reduce congestion, and improve safety (ODFW, 1983).

Beginning on the day prior to the season opening, Oregon State Police conduct hold inspections of all vessels participating in the first 30 days of the season, with assistance from ODFW (OAR 635-055-0465). Each vessel hold is inspected and certified to be free of crab before providing the vessel operator an Oregon hold inspection certificate. If the fishery has been divided into multiple fishing zones, the fisher must also declare which fishing zone they intend to fish. A vessel used for fishing crab in an open zone is then prohibited from fishing in any zone that opens later within the same crab season until 30 days after the later-opening zone has opened.

In addition to regulatory season delays due to meat quality or biotoxins (i.e., domoic acid), industry-led delays of the ocean commercial season may occur for several reasons. Historically, these delays have been the result of inclement weather or inability to agree upon a starting price. A state-supervised price negotiation process was established in 2003 to allow harvesters and processors to collectively bargain for an opening price. This voluntary price negotiation process is initiated only at the request of harvesters and dealers representing at least 51% of the active permits and buying capacity in the state, respectively. If this threshold is met and price negotiations proceed, the process is overseen by ODA with involved parties bound by the terms of the negotiated price agreement. Through this process, crabbers are able to set gear and begin fishing safely and efficiently, while processors can ensure a dependable supply of crab.

The commercial crab season opening is a complex process that involves many parties and is subject to variability in weather, crab abundance, molting patterns, and a number of other factors. Dungeness crab are an iconic retail product and culturally significant species in Oregon, and regulations are designed to maintain product quality, while also allowing for an orderly start to the season to minimize safety concerns.

With the ocean commercial crab season opening tomorrow in Oregon, it is an exciting time to be working with ODFW in Newport. I’ve been able to observe and participate in various aspects of two season openings now, and I’m continually impressed by the amount of time, effort, and coordination that is required to get the season started. Like everyone else on the coast, I look forward to the coming weeks and the influx of fresh Dungeness crab that will soon available and ready to be enjoyed by all!

References

Didier, A. J., Jr. 2002. The Pacific coast Dungeness crab fishery. Submitted to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the United States Senate and Committee on Resources of the United States House of Representatives. The Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, 30 pp.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW). 1983. Staff statement on preseason setting of crab pots and crab pot release mechanism for public hearing March 18, 1983. Exhibit E. Marine Region, 4 pp.

Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC). 1979. Draft Fishery Management Plan for the Dungeness Crab Fishery off Washington, Oregon and California. 93 pp.

Rasmuson, L. K. 2013. The biology, ecology, and fishery of the Dungeness crab, Cancer magister. In Advances in Marine Biology, Vol. 65, pp. 95–148. Ed. By M. Lesser. Academic Press, Burlington. 176 pp.

Snow, C. D. 1963. Oregon crab management. Oregon Fish Commission, 14 pp.

Waldron, K. D. 1958. The fishery and biology of the Dungeness crab (Cancer magister Dana) in Oregon waters. Fish Commission of Oregon, Report No. 24, 45 pp.

Whale entanglement mitigation in Oregon

My first summer as a full-time Oregon coast resident has been full of trips to the beach, blackberry picking, hikes, and hammock reading. On most days after work, I am able to enjoy walking my dog along the bluff by our house where you can often spot the telltale spray of whales feeding in the coastal waters. However, given my current project (read about it here!), I can’t help but think about the issue of whale entanglement that occurs when these animals come into contact with fishing gear, and specifically Dungeness crab fixed gear. As part of my fellowship, I will drafting a section for the Dungeness crab fishery management plan (FMP) describing this complicated problem and the work that is being done throughout Oregon and the west coast to address it.

Whale entanglements on the U.S. West Coast have historically occurred at low levels, but an increase in the number of confirmed entanglements has been reported since around 2014. A number of complex factors may be contributing to the increased occurrence of entanglements including changing environmental conditions, altered whale and prey abundance and distribution, shifting fishery effort, and improved public reporting. However, a range of information gaps currently exist that hinder our ability to effectively reduce risk.

Most entanglement reports are the result of opportunistic sightings which are “confirmed” by NOAA Fisheries using photos or videos of the entangled whale, follow-up observations by NOAA staff, or consultation with experienced partners involved in the West Coast Region Marine Mammal Stranding Network. If these criteria are inadequate or unavailable, then these reports cannot be confirmed.

While reporting and response efforts are continually improving, there is still a high degree of uncertainty about the source of entanglements. Whales travel great distances which can make it incredibly difficult to determine the timing and location of entanglements. In a large portion of confirmed reports, it is also not possible to identify the gear type or specific fishery it is associated with. It is clear, however, that whales are entangled in a wide variety of gear types and configurations which contributes to the complexity of the issue and makes a simple solution unlikely.

The majority of identifiable entangling gear has been attributed to trap or pot fisheries, and particularly the commercial Dungeness crab fishery. This issue was highlighted in 2017 by a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity against the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for allegedly allowing the Dungeness crab fishery to take whales listed under the Endangered Species Act without an approved Incidental Take Permit (ITP). In March 2019, a settlement agreement was reached resulting in the early closure of the California fishery on April 15th and including a number of measures for future seasons.

State management agencies along the west coast are actively working to reduce the risk of whale entanglements in Dungeness crab and other fixed gear. In Oregon, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) is working with researchers, industry, state and federal partners, and the Oregon Whale Entanglement Working Group (OWEWG) to develop management measures and strategies to supplement existing regulations that reduce entanglement risk (e.g., limited entry and pot limits, summer fishery trip limits, post-season derelict gear retrieval program, etc.). The agency is also collaborating with researchers at Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute on a study to better understand the temporal and spatial distribution of whales off Oregon and habitat use patterns. In April 2019, ODFW formalized their intent to apply for an ITP and has taken steps to initiate the multi-year process.

Additionally, ODFW will be recommending management measures for whale entanglement mitigation through a phased approach to the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission (OFWC) in the coming months. Phase 1 will be recommended in September for implementation at the start of the 2019-20 crab season, while Phase 2 will be recommended in early 2020 for implementation as early as spring 2020. Recommended management measures aim to improve our understanding of when crab fishery effort overlaps with whale occurrence throughout the season and our ability to determine where and when entanglements originate. Measures will also be recommended to reduce the number of vertical lines in the water during a potential “late season” fishery when whale feeding aggregations are commonly found off Oregon. Details of these rule-making packages can be found in the ODFW industry notice found here.

Voluntary best practices that the Oregon crab fleet can take to reduce the risk of whale entanglement have also been developed by the OWEWG and are available here.

I look forward to learning more about this issue in the coming weeks as ODFW prepares to recommend Phase 1 of the whale mitigation rule-making packages to the OFWC. Moving forward, I will work to include in the FMP the collaborative efforts of various partners working to mitigate the risk of whale entanglements, while maintaining the vitality of the crab fishery.

Additional references

Braby, C. 2019. Reducing risk of whale entanglements in Dungeness crab gear – building resiliency into the crab management framework. Director’s Report. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Marine Resources Program. Available at https://www.dfw.state.or.us/agency/commission/minutes/19/06_June/Director’s%20Report_Whale.pdf

NOAA Fisheries. 2019. 2018 West Coast Whale Entanglement Summary. U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service. 10 pp. Available at https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/resource/document/2018-west-coast-whale-entanglement-summary

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW). 2019. Industry notice, April 12, 2019. 4 pp. Available at https://www.dfw.state.or.us/MRP/shellfish/commercial/crab/docs/Industry%20Notice%202019-0412_FINAL.pdf

Saez, L., Lawson, D., DeAngelis, M., Petras, E., Wilkin, S., and Fahy, C. 2013. Understanding the co-occurrence of large whales and commercial fixed gear fisheries off the west coast of the United States. NOAA Technical Memorandum, NOAA-TM-NMFS-SWR-044. 102 pp.

A (Very) Brief History of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Fishery

 

Drawing by H.L. Todd, from No. 2553, U.S. National Museum. California, William Stimpson.

Landings of Dungeness crab were first recorded in Oregon in 1889 and have continued to constitute a major fishery resource ever since. Over time, the fishery has seen increased participation, changing technology, and improved understanding of crab biology and population dynamics which have shaped the management system that is in place today.

Crabbing began in the major bays and other protected waters along the Oregon coast. Gradually, these efforts expanded to the open ocean where the vast majority of commercial crabbing in Oregon now takes place. From 1909 to 1933, commercial fishers were subject to daily and/or annual bag limits. When these catch limits were repealed in 1933, a sharp increase in landings occurred and continued until 1948 with crabbing for both male and female crabs open year round.

In 1948, the first seasonal closures began in Oregon with the goal of reducing the catch of crab that are in poor condition (i.e., low meat yield) during times when molting takes place. At the same time, the harvest of female crabs was first prohibited (which was practiced long before it was set in rule) in an effort to support the reproductive output of the population. Size regulations were first implemented in the early 1900s and have remained largely unchanged. Size limits were enacted with little knowledge of the species biology, however, research now supports a 6.25” (159 mm) minimum carapace width which allows male crabs to reproduce for at least one season before being targeted by the fishery. These three components (i.e., size, sex, and season) constitute the “3-S” management strategy that is employed by Dungeness crab fisheries along the coast.

Over time, additional management measures have been adopted to limit effort in the Dungeness crab fishery and to reduce the impacts of lost or abandoned gear. In 1995, a limited entry program was implemented allowing for a set number of available vessel permits. In 2006, a three-tiered pot limit system (200, 300, and 500 pots) was adopted to control the gear capacity of the fishery. Regulations are also in place in the commercial fishery requiring 4.25” escape rings, biodegradable release mechanisms, and buoy marking for identification.

Dungeness crab has always been managed at the state level, but there is a history of interstate cooperation to standardize measurement methods, coordinate opening dates, and maintain consistency in other regulations. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Washington, Oregon, and California was first signed in 1980 and subsequently amended to formalize each state’s commitment to mutually supportive management of the resource. In 1990, the Tri-State Dungeness Crab Committee was coordinated by the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission (PSMFC) to provide a forum for negotiating issues that affect more than one state’s fishery.

During my fellowship with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), one of the major challenges is researching and documenting the changes that have taken place in the fishery over time and the management decisions that have led to the current regulatory structure. In addition to the long history of the ocean commercial Dungeness crab fishery, a targeted bay commercial fishery and active recreational fishery for Dungeness crab also exist. I am working to include a detailed description of each of these fisheries and an assessment of the challenges they face to support coordinated management and minimized complexity.

From the early days of the fishery when crabs were landed by the dozen to the current transition to an electronic Fish Ticket system, the Dungeness crab fishery in Oregon has a long and rich history. As I approach the halfway point in my fellowship, I look forward to shifting gears from describing the current status of the resource (e.g., biological information, threats to the resource, available data, and research gaps) to a closer look at the historical and current management strategy for this important fishery resource.

 

[1] Demory, D. 1990. History and status of the Oregon Dungeness crab fishery. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Marine Region, 12 pp.

[2] Didier, A. J., Jr. 2002. The Pacific coast Dungeness crab fishery. Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, 30 pp.

[3] Rasmuson, L. K. 2013. The biology, ecology and fishery of the Dungeness crab, Cancer magister. Advances in Marine Biology, 65: 95–148.

[4] Waldron, K. D. 1958. The fishery and biology of the Dungeness crab (Cancer magister Dana) in Oregon waters. Fish Commission of Oregon, Contribution No. 24, 43 pp.