Quinault Indian Nation crab fleet pioneering electronic monitoring for catch

Quinault Indian Nation fishermen are the first fleet on the U.S. West Coast to use on-board crab pot scanners and video cameras as the fleet heads out this week to fish.

The gear’s primary purpose is to assure that every fisherman is pulling his own pots and to help prevent theft or tampering while docked in Westport. 

“The fishermen asked for these tools,” said Scott Mazzone, marine and shellfish biologist for Quinault. Following a demonstration of a scanner on three boats last year, the entire fleet of 22 crab boats got both the scanners and the cameras this season.

The Dungeness crab fishery is one of the most lucrative fisheries in the state, valued at nearly $62 million in 2014 for nearly 22 million pounds of crab harvested by tribal and non-tribal commercial fishermen. While the crab in California and Oregon still contains too much of the biotoxin domoic acid to be safe to eat, the Washington crab has been well below those thresholds in tests conducted by the state Department of Health.

State and tribal regulations limit over-harvest and maintain crab populations by having retention size minimums, allowing harvest of male crabs only and limiting the season length to allow successful molting and breeding.

To monitor the catch, Quinault partnered with Ecotrust Canada to place quarter-sized radio-frequency tags in crab pot buoys. When the pots are pulled on board, the fishermen run the buoy past a sensor that transmits the identification number and GPS location to a computer on the boat. Each pot is registered to only one owner.

“These systems are designed to lessen the theft of gear and catch,” said QIN tribal fisherman Junior Goodell He is also Chairman of the Quinault Ocean Fisheries Committee. “We’re pioneering these enforcement measures here at home with hopes to influence the entire U.S. West Coast where electronic monitoring system is much needed for the coastwide crab fishery.”

“In addition to enforcement benefits, hearing from our scientists, the potential is here to see a true paradigm shift in the management and understanding of the Dungeness Crab resource. Keeping detailed logbooks and using the camera data could help us bridge some important data gaps,” Goodell said. “We hope to see the state start using this gear as well to improve the management of the fishery overall.”

The cameras are high enough resolution that in the future they could be used to document the size of the crab that are thrown back as well as those retained.

The tags assure that fishermen are fishing the correct number of pots and in the right areas. The camera also works as a backup if the tagging scanner fails. Buoys can be held up for the camera to record the number. “It’s the same technology as the scanner in the department store that reads whether you’re leaving the store without paying for something,” said Joe Schumacker, research scientist for QIN.

Ecotrust Canada has developed the equipment and data processing as they did for the British Columbia fishing fleet. “As a non-profit, we are able to provide these tools for the least cost possible to fishermen,” said Amanda Barney, electronic monitoring program coordinator.