An unusually large number of whales dining in areas off the West Coast also prized by the fishing industry is contributing to an alarming surge in the number of cetaceans entangled in crabbing gear.
Environmental groups are urging state fisheries managers to implement immediate reforms to protect whales from injury and death. Crabbers welcome collaborative efforts to reduce entanglements, but some suggest environmentalists are using the problem as leverage to stop the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from removing humpback whales from the endangered species list.
"There are a couple of things going on here, and they've become political," Jennifer Renzullo, a research biologist at UC Davis, said in an interview. "For some reason, perhaps because of unusual conditions at sea, humpback and gray whales that tend to migrate through the areas such as Monterey Bay have been spending more time there. Coincidentally, the crab population was healthiest there this year, in terms of harvesting.
"More fishing pressure," she added, "combined with more whales hanging out in the area are contributing to a spike in entanglements."
At least 30 whales – most of them grays and humpbacks – were entangled in vertical lines between buoys floating on the surface and crab traps on the ocean floor in 2014, a record number and nearly twice that reported the previous year, according to NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service.
Seven of those whales died after vertical lines cut into their flesh and blubber. Seven others were disentangled and released free of lines. The fate of the remaining entangled whales remains unknown.
So far in 2015, at least 25 entanglements have been reported off the coast of California.
A task force comprising the fishing industry, state and federal agencies and conservation organizations is attempting to address the problem.
But a coalition of environmental groups led by the Center for Biological Diversity, Earthjustice and Oceana on Tuesday urged the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the California Fish and Game Commission to make significant changes before the next Dungeness crab fishing season off the West Coast begins in the fall. The current Dungeness crab season ends June 30.
New measures under consideration include fishery closures in areas where whales are feeding, use of lines that break away when a trap catches onto a whale, and enhanced efforts to collect lost and abandoned fishing gear.
"It's heartbreaking to know so many whales are getting tangled up in fishing gear," said Catherine Kilduff, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity who requested whale entanglement data from NOAA this year. "They often drown or drag gear around until they are too exhausted to feed. Even more disturbing is that this problem is only getting worse."
Renzullo is not so sure. "About 90% of the crabs harvested are caught within six weeks of the season opening – then the catch drops off exponentially," she said. "My guess is that the number of whale entanglements will drop off too as the year goes on."
Kevin Pinto, who has been harvesting Dungeness crabs off the coast of California for 36 years, agrees that reforms are needed. But he suggested that the environmental groups' call for immediate reforms may be "part of their rally cry to assure that humpback whales are not delisted."
On Feb. 20, NOAA announced that it was considering a proposal to reclassify the humpback whale into 14 distinct population segments under the Endangered Species Act.
Over the last four decades, protection and restoration efforts have led to steady population growth for humpbacks. The proposal suggests that 10 of those 14 populations no longer warrant listing, including some humpbacks that winter off the coast of California.
"In our opinion, humpback whales still need federal protection," Kilduff said. "Humpbacks off California are vulnerable to a wide range of threats: exposure to DDT and trash of all kinds, ship strikes, contaminants washed into the sea from mainland population centers and entanglement in fishing gear."