The number of whales becoming entangled in fishing gear off the West Coast this year is on pace to meet or surpass last year's record, federal officials say.
Justin Viezbicke, marine mammal stranding coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in California, said there are three driving forces behind the surge in whale entanglements in recent years.
"When you have increased presence of whales, increased fishing pressures, and better reporting, it all adds up to us seeing what we’ve been seeing," he told KPCC.
Last year, NOAA logged 71 reports of whale entanglements off the entire West Coast, according to NOAA's annual survey. Fifty-two of those were off California. Viezbicke said so far this year, they’ve received about 30 reports off the West Coast and 20 reports off California alone. That’s double the number of whales spotted between 2000 and 2012.
They’re mostly gray whales and humpback whales that get trapped in crab fishing lines. Viezbicke says the gear can restrict their movement, making it hard for them to dive below the surface and feed.
"If we don’t get that gear off of that animal, or the animal can’t shake it off on their own, it’s going to die," Viezbicke said.
This whale in Crescent City videotaped by Ben Lester with Oregon State University became entangled in a fishing line in late July.
Viezbicke says engaging with local fishermen and communities has led to more calls when a whale is in danger. Officials are currently working with crab fishermen to develop better practices that result in less lost fishing gear that could potentially ensnare whales and other sea creatures.
But advocacy groups like the Center for Biological Diversity says more needs to be done.
"We’ve worked with regulators and crabbers to address this problem over the past couple of years, and we’ve heard their statements of concern as the problem has gotten worse and worse," said staff attorney Kristen Monsell in an op-ed for the Sacramento Bee. "But words aren’t enough anymore. It’s time for action now, before the start of the next crab season in November."
The environmental nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity plans to sue the California Department of Fish and Wildlife over the issue at the end of the month.
Catherine Kilduff, senior attorney at the Center, told KPCC that the state has made some progress. A law passed the Legislature last year aims to help fishermen retrieve lost crab lines and gear. And this year, a bill was introduced that would give more money to teams like Viezbicke's that go out and disentangle whales and other marine mammals.
But Kilduff says last year's law still hasn't been implemented. In the meantime, state recommendations on best fishing practices to prevent excess fishing lines that the Center has advocated for have not been followed.
A voluntary advisory attempting to reduce the number of crab traps in whale entanglement hotspots like the Monterey Bay also "didn't have an effect," Kilduff said.
"All of this meant that we needed to file a lawsuit in order to get regulations to protect endangered marine wildlife," she said.
Kilduff said since the time of notifying the state of their intentions to sue in late June, a long-time whale rescuer in Canada was killed as he attempted to free an entangled whale.
"That's highlighted just how dangerous this is for humans and for whales," she said. "It lends credence to the fact that we really need to prevent these entanglements from happening in the first place."