Our shared natural resources are our shared responsibility.
Following federal Judge Edward Rafeedie’s 1994 ruling in U.S. v. Washington, state and tribal co-managers have a legal obligation to share equally in the harvest of Dungeness crab.
We do this cooperatively with tribal and nontribal commercial crab fisheries through careful monitoring and in-season management—like we do with salmon. Buyers report their purchases and data is shared between tribal and state co-managers, often within 24 hours.
Our tribal subsistence crab fisheries meet that reporting standard as well. In our world, if you can’t enforce the fishery, you don’t open the fishery.
We need a similar commitment when it comes to recreational crab harvest—with a timely and accurate catch. We think recreational harvest is being underreported. The state and its recreational crabbers need to take accountability for their share of the resource.
Six years ago, NWIFC chair Lorraine Loomis called for better management of recreational crab harvest in Puget Sound. Since then, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife has continued to prioritize recreational harvest of their share, but is not meeting its obligation as a co-manager to accurately report the catch.
According to the state, only 50% of recreational crabbers turn in their catch record cards. The penalty is a $10 fine tacked onto their next fishing license—an amount some people consider a “donation to the state,” rather than punishment for failing to take responsibility for their harvest.
Failing to turn in catch cards makes it harder for state and tribal co-managers to manage crab seasons in Puget Sound. Fisheries managers need that data to determine future harvest numbers. Catch record cards are a tool that help us estimate how many Dungeness crab are out there. Improved catch record compliance could lead to increased crabbing opportunities. The only data we have available is the reports of landed catch by tribal and state recreational and commercial crabbers.
We know the state is making an effort to improve catch reporting through educational campaigns and phone surveys to let people know that even if you didn’t go crabbing, or didn’t catch anything, you still need to fill out a catch record card. WDFW also is developing an electronic catch record card so crabbers can report their catch from their phones. But we’re concerned that people who can’t be bothered to turn in their catch cards won’t use the app either.
We also need to see more state enforcement boats on the water during recreational openings to make sure people are only taking home male crabs, and returning ones that are female, too small or have soft shells. People also need to be held accountable for illegally setting pots when recreational fisheries are closed, instead of having their gear returned to them without being fined.
We’re encouraged that WDFW is hiring more staff to conduct dock surveys in Puget Sound and improve monitoring from Neah Bay to the Columbia River, including in Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay. That is a good start.
With the amount of resources spent promoting recreational use of the outdoors, the state must be responsible for a full and timely accounting of the crab harvested by its citizens.
Ed Johnstone is chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.