Crabbers forge unique partnership with scientists


Several Oregon crabbers have forged a unique, mutually beneficial partnership with researchers at Oregon State University. The crabbers install temperature and disssolved oxygen recorders right from their crab pots, providing the researchers with a low-cost way to collect data. The crabbers, in turn, will contribute to a scientific understanding of what is causing the relatively new "dead zone" that has started growing every summer off the Pacific Coast – which is no good for crabbers.

It all started when OSU Oceanographer Kipp Shearman got to thinking: with thousands of crab pots up and down the coast, from the near shore to the continental shelf break, could some be used as ocean monitoring stations? A similar project off the northeastern coast, eMolt (Environmental Monitors on Lobster Traps), led by NOAA researcher Jim Manning gave Shearman the idea.

Historically, crabbers have been somewhat leery of working with scientists for fear that the data might end up being used to limit their catch of lucrative Dungeness crab (Cancer magister) and other crustaceans. Likewise, scientists have historically hesitated to trust information collected by people not trained in scientific data collection. But the Oregon Fishermen in Ocean Observing Research (OrFIOOR) project has proven that such a partnership can work, saving money and time, and benefitting both.

Whereas a standalone ocean research platform could cost thousands, the scientists can employ data collection devices at a fraction of the cost. They affectionately call them “research platforms of opportunity.”

The Dungeness crab fishery is threatened by the Pacific NW Dead zone, an area of hypoxic (low oxygen) and anoxic (no oxygen) water that occurs during warm summer months off the Pacific Northwest coast, from northern California to Washington.  Most fish and other swimming critters can flee, but slow-moving organisms may not have that option, so they die. The Pacific dead zone grows up 300 miles long along the coast in summer. Some old- time fishermen say they happened in the past but we didn’t have the instrumentation or funding to monitor "We’ve known about naturally occurring hypoxia (low oxygen) off of the Oregon coast for a long, long time. The large anoxic (no oxygen area) is some recent summers is the ‘surprise,’" says OSU oceanographer Michael Harte.

More people know of the massive Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone – which this summer grew to 3,000 square miles, less than half size as last year’s– but until I wrote a feature article on the Gulf Dead Zone I didn’t realize that according to a United Nations report, 146 dead zones exist around the world, ranging from less than 1 square mile to 45,000 square miles in the Baltic Sea. Most are helped out by fertilizer-laden runoff, and warming oceans may contribute. In the article I wrote, I went way out into the Gulf of Mexico with some Texas Parks & Wildlife Department biologists and watched as they hauled in trawls full of fish and shrimp and squid, and measured temperature and dissolved oxygen, as the OrFIORR project does.

Shearman, along with Harte and graduate student Jeremy Childress, now work with ten crabbers from port towns all along the Oregon coast. Each crabber typically has from 300 to 800 pots in the ocean, which was an ideal situation for research. It allows the scientists to select the best locations to study in order to get a comprehensive look at the coastal ecosystem. In 2005, the scientists started out placing quarter-sized device temp recorders on just 10 pots. After ten months, they retrieve the crabpots and the data recorders. The crabbers also share information on the number of crabs collected per pot. The project has proved so successful that they added 50 more sensors this year, and on five crabpots, they also added dissolved oxygen sensors which are more expensive, but will provide even more information on the ocean environment.

"Working and interacting with fishermen has been a real pleasure,” says Childress. “No one knows the ocean like they do, and they are genuinely interested in the research. This program is still in its infancy, but I see a lot of potential for this type of cooperative research in the future – as a benefit to both scientists and fishermen."