Environment & Science

Why are so many whales getting entangled off the California coast?

An entangled right whale off the coast of North Carolina in February, 2014.
An entangled right whale off the coast of North Carolina in February, 2014.
FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute via Flickr creative commons

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A record number of whales are getting caught in fishing gear off the West Coast, including the blue whale that disappeared this week off Dana Point after rescuers attempted without success to free it.

So far this year, there have been 40 reports of entangled whales, compared to 61 in all of 2015.

Last year saw the highest number of entanglements since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration started keeping track in 1982. Between 2000 and 2014, there were an average of 11 reports per year, the majority from off the California coast.

So what’s causing the increase?

First, more people are looking out for entangled whales, says Justin Greenman, NOAA’s assistant stranding coordinator in Long Beach. And they're doing a better job reporting when they spot one.

Second, whales are changing where they feed because of  warmer ocean temperatures the past couple years. Increasingly, that puts them in conflict with humans and fishing gear.

Third, there are simply more whales. Kathi Koontz, director of California Whale Rescue, said humpback and gray whales -- which are some of the species most likely to become entangled -- are doing especially well thanks to conservation efforts and increased availability of food.

Fourth, poor timing. There was an overlap this year between the Dungeness crab fishing season and the period when most whales are off the California coast. Normally, the Dungeness crab season begins in November and ends in June, but this year, due to health concerns, it didn’t open until March, which concentrated the fishing activity into the spring, when more whales are along the coast.

Can anything be done about it?

The state of California has a whale entanglement working group made up of fishermen, environmentalists and federal and state officials. They are working on strategies to re-design Dungeness crab fishing gear to make it less likely to entrap whales. Whales get caught in the line that connects the crab pot on the ocean floor to a float on the surface. Some ideas the group has include:

Is there anything I can do to help?

Yes! Familiarize yourself with what to do if you see an entangled or distressed whale.

Call: 1-877-SOS-WHALE (1-877-767-9425) or US Coast Guard on Marine VHF Channel 16

Make a report. Include photos and videos and the following information:

Stay with the whale until help arrives!