Whale Entanglement Sightings Reach Record High

What’s causing the record number of whale entanglements off of the Pacific coast? Earthjustice is on the case.

The humpback whale is one species that migrates along the California coast.
The humpback whale is one species that migrates along the California coast and is threatened by entanglement in fishing gear. (Michael Dawes/Flickr)

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Just a couple of miles offshore in Monterey Bay on a grey November day, the ocean surface behind our whale watching boat started to boil with anchovies. As we watched, astonished, a cloud of them shimmered out of the water, followed by the lunging head of a humpback whale. Its enormous throat billowed as it swallowed the unsuccessfully fleeing anchovies. Even our guide exclaimed at the sight. But that exclamation was followed by a note of worry: “You see those buoys right near the whales—those are for crab gear. I sure hope the whales move away from them; otherwise they can get tangled up in the line.” A fellow whale watcher cocked his head: “Really? That happens?”

It does happen, and as I learned earlier this year, record numbers of whale entanglements—mostly humpbacks and gray whales—have been seen entangled in California since 2014. Most of these whales were snared in gear used to catch Dungeness crab, spot prawn and other species. While a lucky few escape from the gear by themselves or get help from a brave team of disentanglement volunteers, those that remain wrapped in buoy line can face serious injury and even death. An entangled whale may be forced to drag hundreds of pounds of gear as it attempts to feed, migrate or simply surface to breathe. Some exhausted whales eventually drown. The line can also cut into the whale’s flesh, leading to infections. Line that remains wrapped around pectoral fins or a fluke can cause those fins to rot off altogether.

Knowing the risk of serious injury associated with these entanglements made the new data on increased incidents in 2014 and 2015 even more alarming. Between 2000 and 2013, California saw an average of eight whale entanglements per year. In 2014, 21 entanglements were observed. And in just the four months of 2015 alone, 25 separate whales were seen wrapped in fishing gear.

While we don’t know all of the reasons behind the escalated incidents, part of the problem may be traced back to those anchovy that the whales were chasing. High quality food like anchovy and sardine is in scarce supply along much of the California coast, in part due to overfishing. Monterey Bay is one of the few spots where significant numbers of anchovy are concentrated, creating a food oasis and possibly leading whales to linger there much longer into the Dungeness crab fishing season. More whales + more crab gear = greater risk of entanglements.   

Let’s be clear: No fisherman wants to entangle a whale, just as no driver wants to get into a traffic accident. But regardless of intent, whether you’re talking about whales getting tangled in gear or cars getting snarled with other cars, a spike in those accidents signals a dangerous problem. And that problem demands solutions.

To that end, Earthjustice and our partners recently submitted a letter to the California Fish and Wildlife Department and California Fish and Game Commission requesting that they work with us, federal marine mammal authorities and fishing industry representatives to implement measures to prevent whale entanglement in the Dungeness crab fishery before the next fishing season starts next fall.

Options up for consideration include allowing more than one trap to be deployed with each buoy, thereby decreasing the number of buoy lines swaying in the whales’ path; modifying gear so that buoy lines break off when a whale strains against them; and limiting the amount of gear deployed in areas with high concentrations of whales. We also requested that California obtain authorizations under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act for the incidental injury to marine mammals caused by state-managed pot and trap fisheries. This process will contribute to the development of longer term, more comprehensive plans to prevent harm to whales. Such measures could involve modifications of fishing gear, increased removal of abandoned or lost gear, and/or limiting the amount of gear deployed in areas where there are large numbers of whales.

I’m optimistic that we will find solutions. Already, key regulators and the public are giving greater attention to this issue and we’re seeing a commitment on the part of California fishery managers and members of the Dungeness crab fleet to address it. We look forward to finding ways to protect our magnificent ocean neighbors so that they can swim freely and safely, and forage for their own dinners without becoming a casualty of ours.   

As a senior attorney with the Oceans Program, Andrea's work focuses on protecting marine biodiversity and promoting abundant, resilient ocean ecosystems.

The California Regional Office fights for the rights of all to a healthy environment regardless of where in the state they live; we fight to protect the magnificent natural spaces and wildlife found in California; and we fight to transition California to a zero-emissions future where cars, trucks, buildings, and power plants run on clean energy, not fossil fuels.