Alarming Number of California Whales Are Getting Caught in Fishing Lines

August 31, 2017

California has seen a record-breaking number of whale entanglements over the last three years. Now, the Center for Biological Diversity is suing the state for failing to protect its endangered species.

Justin Viezbicke once saw a whale struggling to swim up the coast of California without a tail. Though it was a disturbing sight, Viezbicke wasn’t exactly shocked; he’d encountered similar circumstances before. Viezbicke, the California stranding network coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, surmised that this particular whale’s flukes had been severed off by fishing gear. He knew the animal wouldn’t make it far.

In the past, Viezbicke has come across whales that lost blood-flow to their tails due to rope lines tangled tightly around their bodies. Less severe entanglements than the one Viezbicke witnessed can still lead to deadly infections or otherwise interfere with the animal’s ability to feed or forage.

“These entanglements are long, drawn-out processes,” Viezbicke says. “They can last months, sometimes even longer depending on the nature of the entanglement, and the will of the animal.”

The number of whales entangled in fishing lines off the West Coast of the United States has been sharply rising in recent years. In 2016, 71 whales became entangled in fishing gear off the West Coast, breaking the entanglement record for the third consecutive year. “We’re lucky if we get some or all of the gear off of a half dozen to a dozen of the whales every year,” Viezbicke says.

Entanglements are not always fatal, but for some threatened species, even a small number of deaths could be enough to collapse an entire population. (One subpopulation of humpback whales that feeds off the coast of California, for example, now numbers a mere 400.) Twenty-one endangered or threatened whales and one leatherback sea turtle were entangled in Dungeness crab gear in the Pacific Ocean in 2016; typically, Dungeness crab traps consist of a pot used to collect crabs on the seafloor, attached to a line of rope that extends to a buoy on the ocean surface.

In response to this threat, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a notice of intent in June to sue the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The CBD claims that the department, which manages the crab fishery, is violating the Endangered Species Act by failing to protect endangered whales and turtles.

The CBD first sent the state wildlife agency a letter in 2015, according to CBD attorney Catherine Kilduff, which noted the sharp rise in entanglements the year before, and requested the crab fishery impose restrictions to protect endangered animals. “Since then, there haven’t been any mandatory actions for the fishery to reduce the risk of entanglement,” Kilduff says, “so this is a last resort for us, to turn to litigation.”

The California wildlife agency has yet to respond to the CBD’s letter of intent. The center will likely file suit as early as this week.

Complicating matters is the fact that both the CBD and the Department of Fish and Wildlife agree more data is needed to properly regulate the crab fishery and prevent future entanglements. For one, no one knows exactly why entanglements have been increasing these past three years. Viezbicke believes fishermen, whale watchers, and boaters are getting better at spotting and reporting entangled whales. In addition, conservation work has helped re-grow whale populations, and as climate change alters ocean conditions, whales seem to be following their prey—like krill and anchovies—closer to shore. “The theory is you’ve got more whales and, for a number of oceanographic reasons, they’re hanging out more often in the same place and during the time of the year when that crab fishery is operating,” says Sonke Mastrup, an environmental program manager with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

This was particularly true last year, when the Dungeness crab fishing season opened months later than usual due to higher levels of the neurotoxin Domoic acid found in the shellfish. “When you put the majority of the fleet on the ocean at the same time that the whales are showing up and all the feed is showing up, it was just that perfect storm,” says James Anderson, a Dungeness crab fisherman out of Half Moon Bay.

Of course, whales are getting entangled in more than just Dungeness crab gear, but it is one of the bigger fisheries operating off the West Coast. The state wildlife department issues more than 550 permits to Dungeness crab fishermen (though not all of them are active), and it caps the number of traps fishermen can collectively set at 151,000. The department monitors traps to make sure lines set on the ocean have an official state tag, but they don’t keep track of where they are set or even how many are used each season. “How many are actually fished, we have no idea,” Mastrup admits.

That is part of the problem, according to Kilduff. “It could be that there are more traps being set than there used to be, but they don’t have the data to really say for certain if the fishery is changing,” she says.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife, for its part, has already taken actions to try to reduce entanglements. In May of 2016, it issued an advisory to crabbers recommending that they reduce the amount of gear in Monterey Bay, a “hot spot” for humpback whale activity. But the CBD’s notice of intent claimed “voluntary measures alone are insufficient to reduce entanglements.” The CBD wants mandatory closures when whales are in the area, rather than voluntary ones.

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