WSG News Blog

WSG helps partners handshake on ocean shipping lanes solution

March 29, 2023

The Columbia River Crab Fishermen’s Association presented an award to Jenna Keeton, Washington Sea Grant Fisheries Specialist, for her skillful approach to supporting stakeholder engagement


Shipping Lanes

An example of shipping lanes off Washington Coast at the Port of Grays Harbor.

It started in another century when towboats ran over crab pots, tangling their propellers in buoys and lines.

Both towboat operators and crabbers knew an agreement was needed to keep their gear intact. For 50 years they maintained an orderly understanding in occupying their separate businesses in the greater, shared ocean space. Then Washington Sea Grant’s Fisheries Specialist Jenna Keeton received a phone call about a new conflict on the horizon.

“Folks from the crab fishing fleet called me and said, ‘Hey, we need to talk with the Coast Guard about protecting the flexibility of the towlanes,” said Keeton.

In 1971, Sea Grant programs on the West Coast began brokering an agreement that provided navigable towboat and barge “lanes” through the crabbing grounds between Cape Flattery, Washington, and San Francisco, California. Under this agreement, towboats transit farther offshore during the crab fishing season, and in return, during the crabbing off-season, towboats transit closer to shore. WSG has led facilitation between these user groups since the early 1990s, maintaining the industries’ cooperation and saving crabbers and towboats at least $1 million annually by avoiding costs associated with gear losses and vessel repair.

Twice a year, members of the commercial crab fishery, towboat industry and state fish and wildlife agency representatives convene in Astoria, Oregon to review the successes and challenges of the current towlanes. If a section of towlane needs to be moved to avoid further conflict, the group discusses the proposal and makes a collective decision. Washington Sea Grant then updates and disseminates the latest towlane map. The flexibility of the towlane GPS points is the key to their success; the last time the towlanes were adapted was in fall of 2019.

During one of the biannual Crabber-Towboat Lane Agreement check-in meetings, the new concern that Keeton heard was that the flexibility of the towlane agreement was in jeopardy. In spring 2022, the U.S. Coast Guard expressed interest in federalizing the towlanes, making them permanent vessel transit lanes to be added to federal nautical navigation charts. Federalization of the current towlanes would mean the Crabber-Towboat Lane Agreement group would lose the ability to quickly adapt the towlane location to local issues as they come up.

“That was a big sticking point for folks in the crab fishing fleet and towboat industry, because the beauty of this 50-year old handshake agreement is that it’s flexible. And the group can adapt to problems as they arise,” Keeton said.

So, Keeton planned, coordinated, advertised and hosted five meetings for Coast Guard officials, crab fishers, towboat operators, bar pilots, fisheries managers and others to convene in Astoria and Westport. At these meetings, a diverse group of people with potentially opposing viewpoints worked together, huddled around paper maps. They identified the best way to protect existing ocean uses while satisfying the need of the Coast Guard to recognize the towlanes on a federal nautical chart.

Ultimately, in late 2022 the Coast Guard proposed to place a wide fairway around the existing towlanes to allow for location flexibility in the future. This negotiation is a supreme example of targeted stakeholder engagement through employing early, repeated, and meaningful conversations with local knowledge holders. Not only did representatives from the crab fishing and towboat industry express their satisfaction and appreciation of being heard by a federal agency, but the relationships among the Coast Guard, the crab fishing and towboat fleets were strengthened.

Keeton’s thoughtful approach to negotiations brought together people with competing needs from the ocean commons. The Columbia River Crab Fishermen’s Association named Keeton as a recipient of their “Black Hat Award” for helping to sustain fishing jobs through her work with the Crabber-Towboat Lane Agreement group. It’s an honor given to just nine people over the past 25 years including Senate Majority Leader Sid Snyder and Senator Maria Cantwell.

For Keeton, while the award is humbling, the outcome is most rewarding.

“This project represents a classic duty of Sea Grant outreach staff, which is to listen to what our constituents need and bring together the appropriate people to find a solution to a problem,” said Keeton. “The end result of repeatedly bringing people to discuss their concerns resulted in happy partners.”


Washington Sea Grant, based at the University of Washington, helps people and marine life thrive through research, technical expertise and education supporting the responsible use and conservation of coastal ecosystems. The National Sea Grant College Program is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce.

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