California Whale Entanglements Halved with Shorter Crab Season

Humpback whale with line wrapped around tail flukes (file image courtesy NOAA / Scott Benson, MMHSRP Permit 18786)

Published Sep 3, 2019 9:16 PM by The Maritime Executive

According to data from the National Marine Fisheries Service, the rate of whale entanglements in fishing gear along the U.S. West Coast has fallen by half this year, from about 40 incidents January-August last year to 18 incidents for the same period this year. The environmental advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity connected the improvement to a legal settlement shortening the California crab fishing season.

A lawsuit filed by the center in 2017 ultimately led to a settlement with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association, and the terms included ending the California crab season on April 15 instead of June 30 as scheduled.

The settlement also includes additional measures to mitigate entanglement risks. It promotes the use of ropeless gear and creates a system for assessing risks to whales and triggering area closures when necessary. 

While the numbers represent an improvement, two humpbacks were found entangled in Dungeness crab gear in August, well after the end of the season, including one whale that did not survive. “It’s great to see our settlement saving whales, but the discovery of two humpbacks entangled in California crab gear in a single month shows there’s still work to do,” said Catherine Kilduff, an attorney with the center. “We don’t know if this was lost gear or if these poor whales had been entangled for months. State officials and crabbers must do more to reduce entanglement threats to endangered whales and sea turtles.”

Lobster and crab pot gear poses known hazards for whales. In order to find and recover their traps economically, fishermen employ heavy vertical lines made fast to the trap and suspended by buoys from the surface. Whales can become entangled in these lines, and impairment or death often follow. At peak in 2016, the number of reported West Coast whale entanglements reached more than 70 incidents in a season. The problem is also pronounced on the eastern seaboard, where Canadian crab pot gear accounts for about one third of endangered North Atlantic right whale injury and mortality rates. 

As the humpback whale, blue whale and leatherback turtle are federally-listed endagered species, the center noted, each incident of entanglement technically represents a violation of the Endangered Species Act. California is currently in the process of applying for federally-permitted endangered species take levels for its crab fisheries.