New Data Shows West Coast Whale Entanglements Now At Record High Levels

Conservation groups seek reforms in crab and other California fisheries through collaborative effort

A whale with several fishing ropes wrapped around its flipper. Over time, the whale's continued growth, combined with drag through the water and shifting, could cause these ropes to tighten, leading to bone damage, infection, and eventually death.

A whale with several fishing ropes wrapped around its flipper. Over time, the whale’s continued growth, combined with drag through the water and shifting, could cause these ropes to tighten, leading to bone damage, infection, and eventually death.Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission / NOAA Research Permit #932-1905/MA-009526

San Francisco, CA —(ENEWSPF)–April 30, 2015.  New data reveals that a record number of whales were entangled in fishing gear off the U.S. Pacific coast last year and they are being reported at an even faster rate this year, prompting conservation groups today to urge California fishery managers to institute reforms to better protect marine mammals from injury, suffering and death.

According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, there were 30 unique reports of whale entanglements in 2014 off the West Coast—most of them gray or humpback whales caught in lines connected to crab pots—nearly twice the number from the previous year, and well above the average from the last decade (eight per year) or the previous decade (three per year). So far in 2015, there have been over 25 unique reports of entanglements in California alone, including most recently a killer whale that washed up dead north of Fort Bragg, Calif. entangled in crab gear.

A humpback whale near Moss Landing, Monterey Bay, California.

A humpback whale near Moss Landing, Monterey Bay, California. In the first four months of 2015, there have been over 25 unique reports of entanglements in California alone. Photo courtesy of John C. Bruckman

“It’s heartbreaking to know so many whales are getting tangled up in fishing gear. They often drown or drag gear around until they’re too exhausted to feed. Even more disturbing is that this problem is only getting worse,” said Catherine Kilduff, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity who requested the whale entanglement data from National Marine Fisheries Service earlier this year.

Of the 30 cases last year, seven whales were disentangled and released free of lines, seven were found dead, two were observed to self-release and the remaining entangled whales had an unknown fate.  Most recent entanglements have occurred with Dungeness crab gear, although lobster and spot prawn gear as well as gillnets have also been identified.

For whales that cannot free themselves or be disentangled by people, trailing fishing gear can add drag, which depletes energy reserves and ultimately leads to death, or can sever limbs and cut into flesh, which can cause infection or prevent mobility. One study found that fatally entangled whales can take an average of six months to die. There are also strong indications that the problem could be even worse than the official National Marine Fisheries Service numbers show. Experts acknowledge there could be far more entanglements that go undetected. A photographic study from 2004–2006 indicated at least half the humpback whales off the West Coast had scars indicating prior entanglement. 

“Californians are incredibly lucky to share our coastal waters with these magnificent whales. We have a responsibility to act quickly to prevent more whales from getting tangled up in fishing gear,” said Andrea Treece, an attorney with Earthjustice. “We’re requesting that the state work with our groups and the fishing industry to protect whales and secure federally required permits that protect fishermen.”

A team of state and federal biologists assisted in disentangling this North Atlantic right whale in 2010, off the coast of Daytona, FL.

A team of state and federal biologists assisted in disentangling this North Atlantic right whale in 2010, off the coast of Daytona, FL. For whales that cannot free themselves or be disentangled by people, trailing fishing gear can add drag, which depletes energy reserves and ultimately leads to death, or can sever limbs and cut into flesh. Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission via NOAA

The California fishing industry has begun to address the risk of whale entanglements, through industry-led retrieval of lost crab pots, better gear marking and limits on the number of traps set. However, the combination of increasing populations of some whales and changes in ocean and fishing conditions have resulted in the unfortunate increase in entanglements, indicating more needs to be done. The California Dungeness Crab Task Force recently established a working group comprised of the fishing industry, state and federal agencies, entanglement experts and conservation organizations to address the problem.

Measures to address large whale entanglements from other regions have included fishery closures in areas where whales are feeding; lines that are designed to break away when a pot or trap catches on a whale; and reducing the number of vertical lines in the water. Earthjustice, the Center for Biological Diversity and Oceana suggested in today’s letter to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the California Fish and Game Commission that these and other measures be considered, calling for collaborative efforts to address the problems before next fall when the next Dungeness crab fishing season begins. The current Dungeness crab season on the West Coast ends June 30.  The most commonly identified gear on the whales was from the Dungeness crab fishery.

“There are simple, common-sense solutions that will protect the whales, and we’re calling on the state to manage this fishery to protect whales,” Kilduff said. “We want to see meaningful changes to address this growing problem before the next crab season begins.”

Anyone seeing an entangled whale on the West Coast should contact the Entangled Whale Response Network by calling (877) SOS-WHALE (877-767-9425). You will be prompted for pertinent information such as exact location and a description of the entanglement. If possible, please stand by with the whale or contact other boats in the area willing to help monitor the whale until a response can be launched by the trained and authorized Whale Entanglement Team (WET). Photos and video of the event are important in assessing the situation, but maintain a safe and respectful distance of 100 yards from the whale. To learn more about entangled whale response efforts, visit: WhaleEntanglementTeam.org.

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