“You look out on the ocean, and it looks huge. It looks like there’s space for anybody or anything out there.

“But,” says Steve Harbell, “really there’s a lot going on.”

Take, for example, crabbers and ocean-going towboats. Historically, the two have not mixed well off the Pacific coast. Dungeness crab fishermen typically set 400 to 500 pots in the waters off Washington’s coast. Multiply that by 228 fishermen, and you get a thicket of buoys attached by monofilament to the pots 50 to 250 feet below.

That same ocean, near shore, is a towboat highway over which huge boats towing barges laden with various commodities sail up and down the coast every day of the year.

When the towboat and barge meet buoy, the crab pots lose. At least in the best-case scenario.

Crab pots cost about $150 apiece, so towboat encounters can be costly to the unfortunate crab fisherman who sets his pots in harm’s way.

But harm can also come to the towboats. Hiring a diver to clear the lines from the towboat drive shaft can cost $1,000. If the line gets drawn up into the propeller shaft bearings, the towboat may have to go into dry dock for repairs. Dry dock and out-of-service time can cost the owner over $100,000.

Some 30 years ago, the Oregon State University Sea Grant program set out to remedy the situation, which, not surprisingly, caused tension between the two industries. Navigation charts were negotiated and developed, establishing lanes designated for towboats to the exclusion of crab pots. The charts cover the crab fishery area all the way from San Francisco north to Cape Flattery.

OSU dropped the program in the early 1990s. Industry took it over for a while, which meant, says Harbell, it fell to the head of the crab fishery in Ilwaco to keep things going.

Harbell, who has a joint appointment with Washington State University Extension and University of Washington Sea Grant, took over the program in 1997. The tow-lane charts are anything but static documents, and maintaining them requires several meetings a year.

After making final changes in the spring, Harbell sends the charts to about 1,200 commercial crab license holders in Washington, Oregon, and California and to 300 towboat companies and 20 shipping agents.

When fuel prices started rising, changes were made to some of the inside lanes to shorten distances. Lanes also change seasonally, moving in closer to shore after May 1, when the crab season has tapered off. Besides alleviating tensions and economic loss, the program has opened about 500 square miles of ocean to crab fishing, says Harbell.

Compliance with the tow-lane charts is good, says Harbell, as both crabbers and towboat operators clearly benefit by adhering to the charts. The agreement does have some legal teeth, through Coast Guard enforcement.

But so far it’s not been needed, says Harbell. “We’d like to stay with a gentlemen’s agreement.”