Catching Crabs in a Suffocating Sea


When oceans are starved of oxygen, it can be devastating to crabs and the fishers who rely on them. New tools could help crabbers sidestep dead zones.

The crab pots are piled high at the fishing docks in Newport, Oregon. Stacks of tire-sized cages fill the parking lot, festooned with colorful buoys and grimy ropes. By this time in July, most commercial fishers have called it a year for Dungeness crab. But not Dave Bailey, the skipper of the 14-meter Morningstar II. The season won’t end for another month, and “demand for fresh, live crab never stops,” Bailey says with a squinting smile and fading Midwestern accent.

It’s a clear morning, and he leads me aboard a white-and-blue crab boat, built in 1967 and owned by Bailey since 1992. He skirts a giant metal tank that he hopes will soon hold a mob of leggy crustaceans and ducks his tall frame into a cluttered cabin, where an age-worn steering wheel gleams beneath the front windows and a fisherman’s prayer hangs on the wall: “Dear God, be good to me. Your sea is so great and my boat is so small.”

The churning Pacific is just one challenge Bailey and his fellow crabbers must face. Recent years have also brought outbreaks of domoic acid, which renders crab unsafe to eat, and increasing incidents of humpback whales getting tangled in crab gear. However, there’s another emerging problem that threatens not only Bailey’s livelihood but the very ecosystem that sustains it. I’ve come today to see a tool that could help crabbers manage.

Read the full story in Hakai Magazine (or in Smithsonian, High Country News or The Tyee).

Oregon crabbers are on the front lines of ocean oxygen loss. (Credit: Julia Rosen)