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Working Together for a Sustainable Crab Fishery

Bycatch Reduction Engineering Program

The Bycatch Reduction Engineering Program—a NOAA grant program—funds research on technical solutions to bycatch-related fisheries management problems. In 2012, NOAA funded more than $2.5 million in grants to address important fisheries including:

  • Gulf of Maine recreational hook-and-line fisheries
  • Atlantic pelagic longline fishery
  • U.S. Pacific hake fishery

To learn more about the innovative research being funded by the Bycatch Reduction Engineering Program, read the 2012 Annual Report to Congress or read the two-page fact sheet.

Tagged crab.

Progress as of May 2014

  • 70 research trips completed
  • 4,169 crabs tagged
  • 410 tags returned

* Tagging began in October 2012


For popular seafood menu items like Dungeness crab, there’s good reason to make sure that there is a healthy supply to meet demand. That’s just what the Oregon C.R.A.B. Project is meant to do. This budding research partnership is looking for ways to improve the long-term sustainability of the state’s crab fishery while building relationships with the fishing industry and local community.

C.R.A.B., which stands for Collaborative Research to Assess Bycatch, is funded by NOAA Fisheries’ Bycatch Reduction Engineering Program and the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission. Researcher Noelle Yochum from Oregon State University is collaborating with local commercial and recreational fishermen to tag female and small male crabs that are caught and thrown back because, by Oregon law, they cannot be sold. Through this research, Noelle hopes to capture estimates of survival rates for these crabs along with an understanding of potential ways to increase survival.

Collaboration Aids Data Collection

For this research, Noelle is collaborating with Dr. David Sampson from Oregon State University along with scientists from NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Sea Grant. In addition, getting to know the local fishermen was an important first step in her research. Noelle could often be seen walking the docks and attending local events to build her reputation as a trusted collaborator. She learned about Dungeness crab and the fishery from local fishermen—knowledge that was important to her study design. As a result of these relationships, both commercial and recreational fishermen are now welcoming Noelle onto their boats to collect data. Although this data could be collected independently on a research vessel, working directly with fishermen provides an invaluable perspective on the day-to-day operations of the fishery while also building important relationships.

To collect data, after crabs are caught Noelle evaluates those intended for discard by testing their reflexes and responses to different stimuli. Based on a methodology called the Reflex Action Mortality Predictor (RAMP), Noelle can use those reflex responses to estimate the crabs’ expected survival. The crabs are then taken to a laboratory where they are monitored to track actual survival rates. To confirm these estimates, additional crabs are tested, tagged, and thrown back. When a tagged crab is caught and the tag returned, the data on the tag provide information on how the crab fared once returned to the water. Comparing the results of both methods helps validate the accuracy of the RAMP methodology and provides better estimates of expected survival rates.

Outreach Plays a Critical Role

Outreach is essential for ensuring the local community knows how to return the tags. To spread the word, Noelle created a project website, posted to online forums, sent targeted mailings to permit holders and processors, posted flyers, attended local meetings, and created program branded giveaway items. As an incentive to return tags, Noelle offers a reward—$20, a t-shirt, or a hat—and an entry into a cash prize raffle for every tag returned. Utilizing these outreach methods and incentives, Noelle hopes to far exceed the typical 2 to 4 percent tag return rate. The more tags returned, the more data available to support her research.

Photos above: Fishermen during a commercial ocean crabbing trip (left) and recreational bay crabbing (right) sort through their catch, discarding all female crab and male crab that are either too soft or are below the minimum legal size.

Focus on the Future

In the long run, better information on crab discards could provide insight into gear modifications and adjustments to crab fishing and handling methods, which, as a result, might decrease mortality rates in Oregon’s Dungeness crab fishery. On a larger scale, this project’s potential validation of the RAMP methodology could lead to more widespread use of it to evaluate discard mortality in federal fisheries.

Perhaps the benefits of the project are described best by Al Pazar, a commercial crab fisherman, “I am thrilled to partner with Noelle on this Dungeness crab bycatch research. For a fishery where we haven’t had much data, it will help prove what we've known for years—not only is Oregon Dungeness delicious, but it is also a well-managed and sustainable resource.”

Research, collaboration, and innovation are critical to NOAA Fisheries’ ongoing effort to maintain sustainably managed and productive U.S. fisheries, and the Oregon C.R.A.B. Project is just one example of the successful intersection of those ideas.