By Nathan Gilles
Photo by Noelle Yochum
From the shadows of her dimly lit Newport, Oregon lab, biologist Noelle Yochum reaches into the dark waters of her experimental tank. Using a long-handled net she pulls out a squirming female crab, its orange and purple pinchers flailing and snapping at its human abductor. The crustacean is called Cancer magister, commonly known as the Dungeness crab, and the gloomy artificial environment is designed to mimic the creature’s sunless home in the ocean’s depths. Here in Oregon the scurrying bottom dweller is big business.
Over the past decade, fishers have caught roughly 17 million pounds of crab each year from Oregon’s coastal waters. These hauls have made the Dungeness crab the state’s most valuable single species fishery, putting more than $191 million in fishers’ pockets over the last five years alone. Yet just how and why the fishery has been so successful is a bit of a scientific mystery, one that Oregon crabbers need solved if they want to keep the Dungeness and dollars rolling in. That’s where Yochum, an Oregon State University graduate student, enters the picture.
Yochum’s work is being bankrolled in large part by the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission (ODCC), which is also funding three other research projects. The industry-funded organization hopes Yochum and others can discover if Oregon crabbers are slowly hurting the fishery by overharvesting and other bad practices, or — if like many suspect — the fishery is in fact managed sustainably. What’s at stake is the fishery’s certification from the prestigious Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).
For years the council’s blue-and-white label has been the gold standard for sustainably managed fisheries. It’s the label consumers seek out when purchasing ethically caught seafood. And because ecologically minded eaters are willing to pay more for sustainable food, fishers covet the label. The only problem is getting and keeping MSC certification, which requires amassing large quantities of scientific research demonstrating how a fishery’s harvesting practices lead to sustainability.
For decades, Oregon’s Dungeness fishery has been notoriously research poor. Without the right data, the fishery could lose its certification and its distinction in the market.
Yochum is studying bycatch mortality. Of the crabs that, due to sex or size, Oregon fishers are legally required to toss back into the ocean, she hopes to discover how many live and how many die. The Marine Stewardship Council requires the commission to answer this question, among others, and fishers are eager to lend a hand.
Yochum is joined in her lab by Oregon crabber Mark Newell. Yochum is tall, with long, blonde hair and a receptive, talkative nature. Newell, a little more reticent, has the rugged features and discerning eyes of someone who has spent the better part of his life earning a living in the harsh conditions of the open ocean.
Grasping her crab firmly but gently in both hands, Yochum explains her methodology to the seaman.
“If you take out their walking legs,” she says, pulling on four of the creature’s eight legs, “then she should respond and bring those back.” And the crab does, involuntarily retracting its legs. “It’s kind of like when you go to the doctor’s office and he taps your knee to tell how healthy you are by your reflexes,” says Yochum.
Called Reflex Action Mortality Predictor, this methodology identifies involuntary responses present in healthy animals and uses these as a baseline to determine mortality rates. Yochum explains that because sick and injured crabs often have fewer reflexes than healthy ones, testing their reflexes can give you a pretty good idea of whether a crab will live or die, which is exactly what she wants to find out.
By comparing discoveries made in her lab with data she’s gathering in person on boats owned by Newell and other fishers, the researcher wants to uncover what’s happening out there when Oregon crabbers throw back crabs — like this female — that they can’t legally catch. As of this writing, Yochum had logged 38 trips on board crabbing vessels to gather specimens and observe fishing practices. All told, she estimates her hands-on research — which also incorporates a tag and release aspect — will take three years. When it’s all over, the grad student hopes her ambitious project will earn her a doctorate. Oregon’s crabbers hope it will help them keep their certification. But if their experience obtaining the MSC label is any clue, keeping it could be a bumpy ride.
“We started thinking we’d get on the bus at the first stop instead of the last,” says Nick Furman, ODCC’s recently retired executive director. “We just couldn’t conceive that getting certification would take us nearly seven years.” Nevertheless, that’s what happened.
Furman is a former deck hand, seafood sales manager, and, from 1990 until October of last year, head of the ODCC. For more than two decades, from the moment Dungeness crabs hit Oregon’s docks, it was Furman’s job to market them to consumers. Nearly a decade ago, the director set his sights on MSC certification as a way to distinguish Oregon’s Dungeness from other crab.
At first glance, Furman says, MSC certification looked like a sure thing. The fishery had reliably provided crabs for dinner and restaurant tables for generations. It had also received numerous accolades from conservation groups. And, although it had its ups and downs, the fishery had never come close to collapsing from overharvesting. For these reasons, Furman thought getting certified would be routine. He was wrong.
ODCC officially began its certification effort in 2004. That year, the commission contracted with an independent research group named Scientific Certification Systems (SCS). SCS would review the scientific data available on the Dungeness fishery, score the fishery according to MSC rules and determine if more research needed to be done. And because the council sets the rules but doesn’t implement them, SCS would also be the final judge to decide if Oregon Dungeness should wear the blue-and-white label.
After reviewing the fishery, SCS concluded the commission needed a lot more research to meet MSC’s standards. Matters were complicated further when representatives from California’s Dungeness fishery, who initially decided to team up with the ODCC, bailed. This set the project back. Then there was Furman himself. The director had been the leading force behind certification as well as the liaison between Oregon’s crabbers and SCS. In the winter of 2006, Furman left the commission for an 18-month emergency hiatus to act as interim director for the Oregon Dairy Products Commission.
With their point man gone, the effort floundered until Furman came back in the spring of 2008. Upon his return, he faced the largest speed bump yet: the Dungeness fishery itself. The fishery was productive — and presumably healthy — but SCS had concluded that the science explaining why wasn’t there.
“It didn’t mean that the [Dungeness] fishery was badly managed,” says Jason Swecker, sustainable seafoods manager at SCS. “If anything, it meant it was more a victim of its own success.”
Swecker came onto the project in 2008 to, in his words, “crack the whip” and get things moving again. He says the ODCC’s problem was simple: because its fishery was productive and hadn’t suffered any major problems, it hadn’t garnered the same attention and research dollars that more problematic fisheries had. This led to what crabbers say is an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality, which wasn’t good enough for SCS.
“In the MSC world,” says Swecker, “we can’t make a scoring assessment on, ‘we believe this,’ or ‘it’s implied that.’ There has to be some sort of data or some sort of research to back that up.” The fishery’s management made that difficult.
Oregon’s Dungeness fishery is managed in a remarkably simple way. On their boats’ decks, as crabbers pull up their traps full of squirming Dungeness, fishers sort the animals according to the “three ‘S’s:” season, size and sex. Each of these factors helps to protect the health of the Dungeness population. It works like this. Season: The crabbing season usually starts in the first weeks of December and goes until August. By limiting the season, crabbers are less likely to catch molting summer crabs, which are far more vulnerable to injury then their hard-shelled winter cronies. Size: Oregon regulates the size of crabs that can be caught to no smaller than 6 1/4 inches measured across the carapace, which ensures crabbers don’t snatch under-aged males before they are fully mature. And Sex: Females can’t legally be caught. After separating the sexes, the females are tossed back with the young males. The benefits here should be obvious.
For decades, these and other rules helped the fishery continuously pay out. But research proving the management worked didn’t exist. Worse still, MSC prefers stock assessments, or a count of how many animals make up a given fishery. Due to the three S’s, Oregon’s Dungeness fishery didn’t have one. So, Furman says, the ODCC went looking for scientists creative enough to demonstrate the fishery was healthy using other methods. “We had to dig a little bit deeper,” says Furman, “and find ways to document from a scientific perspective what we knew about the fishery: that we weren’t overharvesting.”
The commission could do this because, while the MSC prefers stock assessments, they’re not required. In lieu of full assessments—which can be both time consuming and costly—the council allows for what it calls “proxies,” provided these are scientifically sound and help assess management practices. Think of these as the “all roads lead to Rome” approach. Imagine trying to calculate how many jellybeans are in a given jar, but instead of counting the individual candies, you examine the jar. That’s sort of how the proxies work. And that, says Swecker, is what his team allowed the ODCC to do.
Once given the green light, the ODCC hired scientists to create their proxies. One of these researchers was OSU biologist Selina Heppell.
“Normally stock assessments look at changes in the catch rate and number of crabs per [trap], or changes in the size of the crabs; really big changes in natural variability” says Heppell. “But [with Oregon Dungeness] we don’t have any information other than the catch.” So she went with what she had. Using catch records dating from the mid-twentieth century to the present, the scientist tallied how many crabs land on Oregon’s docks in a typical year. In the process, Heppell also determined something new. Heppell was able to establish a danger point — measured in catch — beyond which the fishery would collapse. This was the final piece the ODCC needed, and in October 2010, Oregon’s Dungeness fishery became MSC certified. However, it wasn’t a done deal.
The fishery is now on a kind of mandatory probation typical in the MSC world. In 2015, Oregon’s crabbers will once again be judged on their fishing practices. In the meantime, the ODCC is working to meet a series of conditions necessary to maintain its continued certification. These are being satisfied by research including Noelle Yochum’s mortality study, as well as a collaboration with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife that creates management practices designed — using Heppell’s danger point — to save the fishery before, in Furman’s words, it goes “over the cliff like Thelma and Louise.”
There’s also a female fertility study in the works, and—perhaps a little overly cautious from past experience — the commission is funding a genetic assessment of the Dungeness fishery. This isn’t a condition. Instead, it’s the ODCC going above and beyond what’s expected. The organization is also working with Portland’s Ecotrust (publisher ofEdible Portland), which plans on rolling out a GPS-enabled mobile app that will allow fishers to map when and where they trap Dungeness, a twenty-first century twist on the logbook. The data obtained via the app is expected to have multiple uses, from aiding conservation efforts to siting tidal energy turbines that avoid commercial fishing routes.
Back in her lab, Yochum returns the crab to its mock home. Mark Newell has been listening intently to her explain her research. He looks impressed, and the two chew the fat about Dungeness. Newell says he suspects that any mortality issues Yochum might find will have to do with how gently the crabs are removed from their traps before they’re sorted. Yochum listens carefully, making mental notes as she goes. The biologist says she likes working with fishers for just this reason: their intimate knowledge of the ocean. “It’s so nice having fishermen that want to be involved in this stuff because we learn so much,” she tells her collaborator.
“Well,” says Newell, “it goes both ways.”
Nathan Gilles is a Portland-based freelance journalist. His website is www.nathangilles.com.