Oregon State University

Confluence: You Talk and You Change the World

Dungeness crab researcher Noelle Yochum with one of her subjects

How Sea Grant helped scientists and fishermen communicate better and work together

by Nathan Gilles

In a dimly lit lab, Noelle Yochum reaches into the dark tank with a dip net and pulls out a squirming Dungeness crab. Yochum’s eyes shine when she explains her research. “It’s a female,” she says, showing off the creature’s pale-colored abdomen. The crab’s orange and purple pincers snap sluggishly at the air.

Holding the animal carefully in both hands, the 30-year-old Oregon State University graduate student explains her methodology. “If you take out their walking legs,” Yochum says, pulling on one of the crab’s legs, “then she should respond and bring those back.” Sure enough, the crab pulls her legs back in. Yochum says that, much like a doctor might tap a patient’s knee as a measure of health, she, too, is examining involuntary reflexes that will help reveal whether her specimens are healthy or not.

Yochum currently has 12 tanks at three labs run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Newport, Oregon. Comparing her crabs’ reflexes against their mortality rate, Yochum hopes to model what happens in the open ocean when fishermen throw back crabs that, by law, can’t be sold. The name for these “throw backs” is bycatch, and for Oregon’s Dungeness crab fishery—which is healthy but data-deficient—what happens after the unsellable crabs are returned to the ocean is a bit of a mystery. Do they live, or do they die?

“About 40 percent of catch globally is bycatch,” says Yochum. “There are a lot of things that are not targeted, so it’s important to know how much of that is dying.”

With her lab experiments and, later, a tag-and-release program, Yochum hopes to get a quantitative handle on bycatch in Oregon’s Dungeness crab fishery. To assist her in doing this she is receiving help from NOAA, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, OSU, and the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission, which has a keen interest in her research. The Commission hopes to use Yochum’s data to help maintain its prestigious Marine Stewardship Council certification. And, to aid the scientist’s ambitious two-year project, the Commission has been connecting Yochum with Oregon crabbers.

The biologist’s collaboration with the fishermen, while not unheard of in other fisheries, is still rare. More often, mutual distrust exists between scientists and fishermen. In the past, scientists have said they felt the data they got from fishermen was suspect, while fishermen saw scientists as yet more regulators hoping to cut back their allowed catches. That Yochum is now working so closely with Oregon crabbers is due in large part to an Oregon Sea Grant program called the Scientists and Fishermen Exchange program, or SAFE, which, in demonstrating success, has also shown just how much it was needed.

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