COLUMBIA RIVER — Dungeness crab fishermen can heave a sigh of relief.
Federal legislation that advocates say will lead to much-needed stability for the West Coast’s valuable Dungeness crab fishery passed the U.S. Senate Friday and now heads to the president’s desk for signature into law. The bipartisan bill permanently extends the Tri-State Agreement between Washington state, Oregon and California to manage the multimillion dollar fishery.
“The Dungeness crab fishery is an economic pillar of our coastal communities, supporting thousands of fishing and processing jobs,” U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, who introduced the bill in 2014, said in a statement. “By preserving the Tri-State Agreement, we can sustainably manage our crab fisheries for many years.”
West Coast Dungeness crab is unique in being one of the few fisheries on the ocean managed solely by the states instead of coming under federal oversight. The bill permanently extends the agreement with the states to cooperatively manage the fishery in federal waters. Previously, the states had to routinely extend the agreement. The most recent version expired in 2016 without a replacement.
“We were lucky that our fishermen continued to honor the spirit of the rule,” said Dan Ayres, coastal shellfish manager with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, about the recent season.
“What it does is it brings some stability to the crab fishery on the West Coast that was uncertain as long as the management structure was subject to change,” said Dale Beasley, president of the Coalition of Coastal Fisheries and of the Columbia River Crab Fisherman’s Association.
Under the Tri-State Agreement, state fishery managers have been able to quickly adjust to the cyclical nature of the crab fishery, Beasley said. Crab populations can vary greatly, sometimes from season to season.
“This is a historic event for the coastal communities that depend on crab,” Beasley added. “It really is. I don’t think people realize how important this is to sustain our coastal communities.”
Beasley worked to keep the bill in front of legislators, traveling to Washington, D.C., himself to represent the West Coast and testify at a House hearing in 2015, and now the fishery will fall squarely under state management.
He and Ayres say they are relived the bill passed and will be, as far as anyone can tell, signed into law soon. Without that tri-state plan in place, Ayres said, “it could really get sticky if we didn’t have authority over what goes on.”
“Fishermen from Washington, Oregon and California are responsibly working together to keep the Dungeness crab fishery healthy and sustainable for future generations,” U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., an early supporter of the bill, had said in a statement in 2015. “They shouldn’t have to travel to Washington D.C. every few years to plead for the extension of a proven plan that has proven to work for our local economy and the Dungeness fishery.”
Beasley believes the bill passed in large part because of the bipartisan champions it found in Beutler in the House of Representatives and Cantwell in the Senate.
“Jamie and Maria are the current fishing heroes that stand on the shoulders of [U.S. Sens.] Slade Gordan and Patty Murray that need to be a big part of that story that needs to be preserved,” Beasley said. “This is an historic event and a positive turning point for the future of fishing.”
Oregon commercial fishermen harvest an average of 14 million pounds of crab each season. Washington state harvests an average of 9.5 million pounds each season. Cantwell’s office estimates that, in Washington, the harvest brings $61 million into the state’s economy annually and supports more than 60,000 maritime jobs.