Healthy Economy Healthy People Healthy Planet homefeature

Crab Trap

Oregon Fishers, Regulators and Scientists Take on Marine Hypoxia

By Caley Henderson

The Smiling Crabber  

When I went out crabbing for the first time, I got seasick. The sun broke through the clouds just as my colleague and I arrived at the Newport, OR dock. Charter captain Greg Niles came over to shake our hands wearing a smile and a sweatshirt with a fish on it. Later, he took off the sweatshirt to reveal a fish t-shirt underneath. The smile rarely left his face.   

We boarded a small fishing charter boat called the Manu Kai, a name Niles inherited from the previous owner. He said it meant “albatross.” The vessel was just big enough to fit Niles, me, my documentarian colleague (his film equipment in tow), and Linus Stoltz, a recent graduate of OSU’s Marine Research Master’s Program. A stack of round crab pots creaked in the center of the deck.   

All was fine as we headed out over the bar. Soaking up reflected sunlight, I leaned in to listen to Niles’s easygoing chatter. Before becoming a professional fishing guide and charter boat captain, Niles ran a surf shop in Newport, then slowly transitioned to this job because he loved getting outside and away from it all. “Just being on the water, it’s so tranquil,” he told me. “…That’s what I like. I love to be in the moment. I don’t want to spin out.”   

When we got to the spot he’d been thinking of, Niles cut the engine and prepared to drop the first pot. He checked the bait and tightly secured the half-lid with a bungee hook. I looked closely at the trap, a cylinder of sturdy wire strung across a black frame. Niles showed me how a little one-way metal flap on the opening was designed so any crab that went in couldn’t get out. “Now sometimes you get a smart crab and he sits right there, pins it open on you,” he said, then amended. “Well I wouldn’t say smart, but got lucky.” Niles worked while he talked, uncoiling the neon green rope attached to a buoy, holding the pot over the side of the boat and letting it go with minimal splash.   

It wasn’t until we motored out to drop another pot in deeper water that I started to become uncomfortably aware of my stomach. The nausea worsened until I finally asked for advice. Stoltz suggested I look at the horizon. Niles said I should try to focus on our luck to be out on such a beautiful day. I tried both. They helped.  

After a half-hour soak, it was time to pull up the pots. They came up crawling with crabs, gleaming bruised purple and speckled egg-shell orange. Though delicately colored, their body shapes were fearsome. Niles took one look at the haul and said, “Lotsa girls”—a disappointment he’d predicted.  

In order to keep the fishery sustainable, fishers must throw back female crabs and only keep males of a certain size. Stoltz and Niles opened the pot, showing me how to differentiate between crab sexes. They flipped a crab and pointed at a shape on its armored belly. “The girls have the capitol building. The men have the monument,” Stoltz said. It took me a second to realize he was using D.C. architecture as a reference point.  

Keeping my gaze half-fixed on the horizon, I watched the sorting process continue from the corner of my eye. Niles used a measuring tool—a metal ruler with hooks—to see if a male made the cut. He lined up a spot just inside the shell’s point with the sizer, which left the other end half an inch shy. No dice.   

Shaking his head, he leaned over the deck rail to slip the “short” into the water. “Even though they’re in a shell, you shouldn’t just chuck em,” he explained. “They kinda go through a shock, so I kinda just try to set ’em in.” Hauling up four pots yielded a total of two keepers. Niles practiced what he preached, gently returning nearly twenty rejects to the sea.   

A second catch was more successful. While the crew of the Manu Kai pulled up pots, we also  dredged up data. Beyond needing a basic education in crabbing, this is the reason I was on this particular boat. Greg Niles is one of many fishers who collects data for a collaborative research project facilitated by Oregon State University (OSU). The initiative’s goal is to gather more robust data on marine hypoxia. I wanted to see their research partnership in action.   

Hypoxia, in this case, refers to depleted oxygen levels in a body of water. Many Oregonians—scientists, fishers and citizens alike—are concerned about marine hypoxia because of its potential to harm local sea life and, by extension, the humans who depend on ocean ecosystems. In the context of climate change, the uptick in hypoxia takes on special urgency: scientists predict rising temperatures will continue to cause hypoxic events of increasing severity along the Oregon coast. Though the existence of low-oxygen zones is undisputed, what an escalation of hypoxia will mean in the future is up for debate.  

Responding to what he understands as the threat of hypoxia, Greg Niles, along with other charter and commercial fishing boat captains, volunteers to retrieve better data about the phenomenon. The day I spent on Manu Kai, we were both crabbing and taking oxygen level readings. Here’s how it worked: As soon as each pot hit the deck, an oxygen sensor connected to a console on the boat dashboard. The sensor, barely noticeable in the belly of the pots, resembled a small length of black PVC piping. The receiver console was a white box with a waterproof screen. With a glance, Niles could see readings in real-time. While he used the information to make crabbing decisions, the system simultaneously beamed the hypoxia data over to an OSU lab for analysis.  

When I asked him why he volunteered with the project, Niles said he liked doing his part. The data collection process was a plus for him, too. As a sport-fishing guide, his job dealt partly with fish and partly with people. The fishing half required him to accurately guess where to find particular species of fish and crabs. When there were areas of low oxygen, he now knew he’d have better luck crabbing closer to shore.  

The data collection also helped him keep his clients entertained. “It’s kind of a fun tool to talk to people, you know, whether fishing is good or bad,” he explained, because the hard data provides fodder for interesting conversation. “I still like to educate as I go,” he shrugged, grinning.    

After pulling up all our pots, we headed back to harbor. Our tiny crab catch went home with Niles, who had taken us out as a favor. I was just glad to be back on dry land. Later, when my stomach settled, I liked thinking that our expedition had yielded a fresh cache of data, sitting on a server somewhere, waiting to be unpacked.   

The Instigators 

The most widespread form of aquatic hypoxia is caused by agricultural and urban run-off. Nutrients (think fertilizer and sewage) leak into water sources (like ponds, rivers and harbors) feeding an algal bloom-bust cycle that results in severe oxygen depletion. In these cases, the anthropogenic cause-effect relationship is straightforward.  

Along the Pacific Northwest coast, hypoxia functions differently. Our ocean zone is an upwelling system. In the summer, seasonal winds from the north pull deep water—naturally nutrient-rich and oxygen-poor—up to the surface, all along the coast. Though low in oxygen, these upwelled waters are also dense with food for aquatic life, fueling a vibrant ecosystem. In the wake of the seasonal feeding frenzy, leftover phytoplankton decomposes, draining oxygen from the surrounding water and often tipping the system into hypoxia. Then, in the winter, different winds reverse the rotation and replace the hypoxic water with oxygen-rich water. This cycle of high and low oxygen-levels helps sustain the dynamic and highly productive local ocean ecosystem.   

The upwelling zone that abuts the Pacific Northwest coast is not unique, but it is important. Upwelling systems are the productive powerhouses of our global oceans—covering only .5% of total ocean area, they produce 7% of global fishery yields. If you buy seafood at a store, there’s a decent chance the filet you purchase originated in an upwelling system. Some seasonal fluctuation in oxygen levels is integral to this type of ecosystem. But scientists have noticed hypoxia levels along the Oregon coast trending upwards for fifty years.   

The most publicized hypoxic events are those that cause die-offs of sea life. When oxygen levels decline too quickly, sea creatures stuck in the resulting hypoxic zones suffer. Events of deadly intensity are rare and localized, but they do occur, as witnessed in the hypoxia-induced crab die-offs of 2002 and 2006 along the Oregon coast.  

However, most instances of marine hypoxia do not cause mass casualties. Hypoxic events more often act as forcing factors, shunting creatures like crabs away from unlivable conditions and inducing them to behave in unexpected ways. One scientist I spoke with compared a hypoxic event to a forest fire—an intense ecological event which animals must escape to survive.  

Similarly to contemporary wildfires, not everyone agrees about the ecological cost of hypoxia. I consulted commercial fishers, sport fishing guides, industrial seafood processors, marine resource managers and scientists about marine hypoxia in Oregon. No one questioned that hypoxic events take the usually stable puzzle pieces of an ecosystem and shake them up. Everyone agreed that hypoxia deserves further study. But when I asked what kind of a story should be told about low-oxygen zones, the answers diverged.  

The Crab Commissioner 

Crystal Adams knows the exact date she started processing seafood. It was her 16th birthday, and she wasn’t particularly excited about the work, but she wanted gas money. With both parents in the industry, it seemed like an obvious choice. After twelve years on the processing floor, she left to join the military. Now, she’s back, working as Assistant General Manager at Hallmark Fisheries in Charleston, OR and chairing the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission (ODCC).   

“We call it dead zones,” Adams told me when I called her up to talk hypoxia. Twenty years ago, she said, she began hearing from “fishermen who had worked for a long time in the same place.” All of sudden, they started hauling up pot after pot of dead crabs. Worried, they asked for help figuring out what was going on. In response, OSU scientists began monitoring oxygen levels and, for the first time, offered hypoxia as an explanation for the dead crabs. Since then, Adams said, dead zones had been an intermittent problem when fishing local waters. It seemed like they were getting worse.   

Going into our conversation, I’d heard that hypoxic events killed crabs. Adams patiently added nuance to my understanding. Yes, dead zones meant fishers could not catch live crabs in particular areas. If crabs got stuck in traps inside a low-oxygen zone, they would die. But people could usually still crab successfully outside these areas, so most crabs seemed able to survive a hypoxic zone by leaving it. 

The concrete consequence of dead zones Adams pointed to was not death but disruption of habitual work patterns. This is less dramatic than a boat full of dead crabs, but a real problem for her community. “[Fishermen] have to go farther to new water,” she said, and when you’re “used to one area, that hurts.” Hearing this, I imagined a loss of local knowledge and Adams agreed. Hypoxia can compel fishers to abandon fishing grounds whose nooks and crannies they know intimately because the species they hope to catch no longer lives there. But she preferred to ground the problem in terms of quantifiable hardships. Going farther to get to new water increased fuel and gear costs.  

Because Adams took the threat of dead zones seriously, she believed the collaborative data collection efforts were important. She seemed to prefer the vivid dead zones to the more abstract hypoxia for the same reason. It was simple. Adams cared deeply about the wellbeing of local fishing communities. If hypoxia endangered them, then it needed a name that could sound a warning.  

The Commercial Fisher  

Justin Yager, a Newport commercial fisherman of twenty-four years, could sometimes tell from the shore if nearby water was hypoxic because, “The surf in localized areas can be kind of smelly.” But he took issue with the media’s use of the dramatic term dead zones to hook people’s attention. To him, that name implied hypoxia was killing off sea life in droves. This messaging didn’t match his experience. “We’ve seen really good seasons with an abundance of crabs with the [hypoxic] events,” he said. “[It’s] not like it just decimates the crabs.”    

At most, he thought, hypoxia forced Dungeness populations to migrate away from hypoxic zones—but, unlike Adams, Yager didn’t count this redistribution as a harm. Hypoxia crops up primarily during the summer, he pointed out, so the population movement sorts itself out before commercial crab season. He seemed confident in his ability to find the displaced crab, hypoxia or no. “Hypoxia can play a minor role into where to put our pots,” he allowed, but it clearly wasn’t anywhere near the most important factor in his calculations.   

Over the course of our conversation, Yager repeatedly reminded me that he wasn’t a scientist. He did not want to come off as pretending he understood something he didn’t, he said. At first this felt like a savvy approach to talking to a journalist. Later I started to see it as a core philosophy. “We know we don’t know anything ever,” he told me—then said it again to underscore the thought. I laughed and said that was my main takeaway from college. “Well yeah,” he said, “Fishing is a little bit like going to school, running these boats, trying to figure it out… You learn you really don’t know that much, but you keep trying to figure it out.” Almost as an afterthought, he added, “That’s what science is as far as I know.”   

Yager genuinely wanted scientific information about hypoxia to inform his decisions—a desire that fit his thoughtful approach to commercial crabbing in the context of environmental change. He was proud to work in a “sustainable fishery” and concerned about the impacts of climate change, both on the world at large and on his profession in particular. As far as hypoxia went, he simply wasn’t seeing the evidence to back up doomsday storytelling. Not yet. “No one can really tell what a hypoxia event looked like 30 years ago, or 100 years ago,” he said, or “whether this was even something that happened then.” More data, he seemed to suspect, might prove that recent hypoxic events were not unprecedented in the longer sweep of history.   

“The question is,” he told me just before I hung up, “is hypoxia a huge immediate threat to the crab fishery or is it not?”  

The Resource Manager 

According to Caren Braby, Marine Resources Manager for Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), hypoxia is problematic precisely because it hamstrings usual strategies for answering questions like Yager’s. Fallout from low-oxygen events severely hampers ODFW’s ability to conduct stock assessments—i.e. counts of how many individuals of a species exist in a particular area. When hypoxia causes species to move around, it becomes difficult or impossible to get an accurate number.  

Braby gave the example of a halibut stock assessment conducted off the coast of Oregon and Washington in 2017. A severe hypoxic event displaced the fish from their habitual movement patterns and the people trying to count halibut in the usual places found none. Not necessarily a die-off, Braby was careful to point out, but the fish were not where they were supposed to be. “What that means for our management is that when we have these events occur and animals respond in dramatic ways, we can’t count them,” Braby said. “We can’t account for the distribution of the species and make sure that our management is sustainable.”   

Long term sustainability planning requires a baseline of data to make educated guesses about the future. Ocean changes like hypoxia disrupt people’s ability to collect and compare this data. Effectively, they make our future more unpredictable—and that can be dangerous. Caren Braby’s job involves figuring out how to navigate these shifting currents. “I have the responsibility,” Braby explained, “of advising Oregon on the best path forward to make sure our ocean uses and resources are healthy and sustainable.” She’s aware of what is at stake: “A fleet of commercial harvesters… look to me to make sure that our catches are sustainable, that their families can rely on those today and next year and the year after that.”   

Her organization tackles this task by considering big questions in the long term. “We’re really thinking about how can we alter the trajectory that we’re on for ocean change,” she said. To do so, they must account for greenhouse gasses, ocean chemistry, circulation and wind patterns, among many other interrelated factors. Charting a course through such uncertain waters is no easy task. “We’re not getting everything right,” Braby said. “There’s no way that we can. And so that keeps me up at night.” Still, she’s proud of the regulatory balance they’ve achieved with limited information. “But,” she said, “there’s always more that we could learn that would give us a better edge.”  

The University Scientist  

Jack Barth, a coastal oceanographer at OSU, works to deliver better information about hypoxia to the fishers, researchers, and sustainability planners who need it. In 2006, he helped document the severe hypoxic event off the Oregon coast. Now, he co-chairs Oregon’s Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Coordinating Council and runs related research initiatives.   

Barth does not question that climate change is a primary factor driving the decades-long hypoxia increase. He sees two specific ways that climate-induced changes in temperature and weather patterns exacerbate natural tendencies toward hypoxia.   

First, the water. The level of dissolved oxygen in the source water welling up along the Oregon coast, already naturally low, is sinking further. This decrease is world-wide; global oceans have lost an estimated 2% of their oxygen content in fifty years. Some causes of this loss point back to increased atmospheric carbon. Rising temperatures decrease oxygen’s water-solubility, meaning less oxygen enters the water. As warming increases the rigid stratification of ocean water layers, there is also less aeration of the deepest areas. All of this adds up to less oxygen in the water welling up from the depths of Oregon’s oceans.  

Second, the wind. Winds driving the upwelling along the Pacific Northwest coast are getting longer and stronger. More wind revs the upwelling engine or, in Barth’s words, “supercharges the upwelling and the plankton blooms.” Cue increases in hypoxia.   

As Barth and other scientists who study this question will tell you, the probable trajectory of hypoxia is clear. Although hypoxia varies seasonally and annually, the average curve has been growing in size and strength over the last half-century. As climate change ramps up, hypoxia along the Oregon coast will likely do the same.   

It’s true that these predictions are not set in stone. Like all good science, they are constantly evolving to account for new data. There’s an outside possibility, for example, that increasing strength and frequency of storms may churn enough to reoxygenate the water. (Of course, in that scenario the planet would have different, but equally severe, problems on our hands.) However, based on five decades of increasingly detailed data, the severity of Oregon coast hypoxic events since the 2000s appear to be unprecedented. They also closely mirror increased climate change pressures over the same period. So the weather report for worsening hypoxia in the future? It’s highly likely.   

But then we come to the uncertainty, an element familiar to marine scientists and fishers alike. “[The ocean is] such a big body of water,” Greg Niles told me aboard the Manu Kai, when I asked him if he’d noticed any differences in his time working on the water. “You think of it being one piece, but it’s so many little pieces… You move five miles this way, all that can change—temperature can change, colors, currents.”  

The science of hypoxia reinforces Nile’s experience. When and where will hypoxic events happen? “It depends,” Barth says, “on these plankton blooms which are patchy and it depends on the underwater geography of how the currents interact with the bottom.” He and other scientists are working to accurately predict where hypoxic events are likely to crop up. “That’s right at the forefront of what we’re trying to figure out,” he said.   

The Affected 

People who fish for a living are used to riding out wobbles in an unpredictable business, often relying on multiple fisheries to make ends meet. Because Dungeness crab is consistently Oregon’s most valuable catch—Caren Braby of ODFW called it “the backbone of our fisheries”—it is essential to many fishers’ ability to stay afloat financially. Greg Niles’ sportfishing business is less closely tied to the whims of a given season, but many of his friends’ households depend on commercial crabbing. He said it’s always easy to tell how the crab season is going. “There’s either a lot of money in town around Christmas,” he said, “or there’s not.” Yager, the commercial crabber, put it simply: “This is our life, this is our business model, this is what we do… [We’d be] out of business if the crab fishery fails completely.”   

The economic and cultural impacts of such a blow would surely resonate beyond local communities. “All things are kind of intertwined, right?” Yager mused at the tail end of our conversation. He was talking about climate change and ocean acidification; I was thinking about hypoxia. “For everybody on the coast and in the world,” Yager continued, “the ocean’s super important.”  

As a writer, my knee-jerk reaction to hypoxia is simple: start spreading the word. Caren Braby (resource manager) and Jack Barth (oceanographer) gave full throated support to hypoxia public awareness initiatives. Yager (fisher) expressed lukewarm agreement: “If it helps to support the science, then public awareness is good, I guess.”  

When I asked Crystal Adams what people needed to know about hypoxia and crabbing in Oregon, she was silent for a beat. “I’m very cautious with the general public,” she finally said. If people hear about dead zones, she worried, they might mistakenly think all the sea creatures are dying and say that the fishing should “just stop.” From her perspective, that attitude misses something crucial. “They don’t know the fishing community, how many jobs and livelihoods and generations [are in this]. It’s in the blood.” The public based their judgements on too little information, Adams implied, failing to weigh the value of fishing communities and their relationships with their local ocean environment. “They think if we just leave it be, it will be fine,” she said, “but the land needs to be tended.”  

It would be easy to report these contradictory instincts about informing the public as irreconcilable. (By now, pitting working people against environmentalists is a narrative cliché.) But Adam’s concerns surprised me because I’d been marveling at the overlap of perspectives between people I’d talked to. Despite approaching hypoxia from markedly different starting places, Adams, Yager, Barth and Braby all wanted the same thing in the end: fisheries that are sustainable for the long haul. They even agreed on the necessary next step to achieve that goal, all heartily in favor of expanding hypoxia research initiatives.  

This deep alignment of interests is why OSU’s collaborative data collection project is so promising. Crucially, the program values the knowledge of people whose work and lives unfold within local ecosystems. Combining local practitioner experience with scientific inquiry is more than an ethical choice. The resultant research project is more effective because it is symbiotic, maximizing participants’ strengths and sharing out real benefits. Although in its early stages, this model has enormous potential for adaptation, and it is no surprise that many organizations around the country are taking note.   

The collaborative research approach hints at hopeful applications for on-the-ground sustainability planning as well. “[Fishermen] are such keen observers about the ocean,” Braby noted, which is why she believes that “the more that we can really understand from their perspective what they’re seeing, and document that, and use that in our decision making, the better our decision making will be.”  

Still, it would be an oversimplification to present all parties who are paying attention to hypoxia as thinking in perfect harmony. Adam’s unease spoke to the murkier issue of how OSU’s research should be put into practice. “No one likes regulations,” Braby later agreed with a wry smile—especially when regulations make it harder for them to do their jobs. Yet Adams—and everyone else in the fishing industry I spoke to—agreed that some sustainability measures were necessary. The problem boils down to a matter of degree. Overly light regulation can expose ecosystems to degradation, which causes human suffering. Overly heavy regulation can sever people’s longstanding relationships with their environment, which is not always good for ecosystems. It’s difficult to strike a tenable balance. Adam’s and others’ comments seemed to spring from an undercurrent of fear about what would happen if regulations went too far.

This apprehension coalesced around the issue of branding. People disagreed about the emotional flavor of the story that should get told. Dead zones or hypoxia? A deadly threat to the crabbing industry or a minor concern? Making real sustainability happen requires a delicate balance of networked relationships. Depending on who answered these questions, their chosen narrative spin could add too much weight to the scale in either direction, throwing the whole system out of order.  

After talking to Adams, I wondered if I should even be writing this story. A simple fact convinced me: Carbon emissions are a direct cause of worsening marine hypoxia along the Oregon coast. This problem cannot be disentangled from climate change.   

When recommending how to tackle marine hypoxia, Jack Barth did not shy away from this bigger picture: “We have to,” he said, “number one, stop or slow down our CO2 emissions into the atmosphere.”  

His “we” is expansive. Beyond funding the science, beyond raising awareness, beyond supporting thoughtful sustainability measures, taking meaningful climate action is necessary to alleviate the threat of hypoxia. Increasingly low dissolved oxygen levels is one problem among many. Everything is interconnected, including us—the ultimate alignment of interests.   

“Humans are going to come to a point,” Justin Yager reflected, after our conversation took a philosophical turn, “where we have to figure out how to adapt and live with the world in a more sustainable way. That’s just the reality of it. We’ll have to figure it out at any cost.”  

“I hope we can,”  he said.  

I said, “I do, too.”   

The Seasick Writer 

When I was still seasick, Greg Niles told me about an incident on a larger charter boat. This rich guy got queasy and came up to Niles, waving a few hundred dollars in front of his nose: “This’ll be yours, buddy, if you head back to the harbor right now.” But everybody else also paid for a full day of fishing. He didn’t get, Niles said, that he wasn’t the only person on board. 

When I asked for advice about my nausea, my friends on the boat had suggested another strategy: take Dramamine the night before. We laughed because it was too late. You never imagine yourself seasick before it happens. You picture yourself on a sunny day out in the salt and the wind, lightly skipping over the waves. When that ideal picture doesn’t play out, all you can do is grin and bear it.   

Problems like hypoxia are not as simple to proactively prevent as seasickness. Massive systemic and cultural change is a rough pill to swallow. There are rough seas ahead, but there is no easy remedy we can take now that will guarantee our comfortable passage through a tumultuous future. We do know one thing for sure: we’ll all be in this boat together.   

About the author:

Caley Henderson is a writer and an educator. She’s working on her MFA at Oregon State University, where she writes about connections between people and their environment. Her work has been supported by a Shotpouch Cabin Residency and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She is a new devotee of Dramamine.