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 sub-population 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 are 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 regrow 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.
Anderson says that without better tools to predict where whales will be and how long they’ll stay, closures might not be that effective for reducing entanglements. Oftentimes, the whales move on before the crabbers have enough time to collect all their gear. “A couple years ago, when we had an issue in Monterey Bay and the working group put together a voluntary closure, and everybody in the area was notified, ‘Get all the extra gear out of the water or get out of the area,’” Anderson says. “It wasn’t until two days after everybody got the notification that all the whales moved off shore.”
It can take some smaller operations weeks to haul in all their gear, Anderson says, meaning mandatory closures on a moment’s notice are simply not feasible. “It’s kind of hard to write a law that says, ‘Go take your gear out tomorrow’ when it’s going to take the small boat fisherman a month to get the gear out of there,” he says. “You can write the law and tell him to move the gear, but if he can’t physically do it we’re not accomplishing anything.”
That’s not to say that the fishery is standing idle as the crisis unfolds. “As soon as it really started to be an issue, we started diving into gear modification as the low-hanging fruit,” Anderson says. He is a member of the California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group, which was convened in 2015 by the Department of Fish and Wildlife to figure out how to reduce whale entanglements in crab traps. “We thought that that would be the quickest thing that we could do to the fleet.”
After experimenting with rope colors and buoy types, the California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group found a more promising solution: a neutral buoyancy rope that features less floating rope on the surface of the water – where they think many entanglements actually take place. “We bought every coil that the manufacturer purchased and shipped to here in America,” Anderson says. “Even though that rope is probably twice as expensive as the ropes we’ve been using, most of the guys realize that if there’s something that we can do to reduce entanglements that it’s in everybody’s best interest to do it.” There have been fewer entanglements this year than there were by this time last year, but it’s still hard to determine what’s helping and what’s not.
Any closures – voluntary or otherwise – could cripple fishermen who are already hurting economically thanks to the domoic acid closures, but that doesn’t mean the fishermen won’t heed them. “Anything that’s going to limit the fishermen’s access to fishing grounds is going to hurt them,” Mastrup says. “Are they going to be happy? Hell no. You’re taking money out of their pocket. Will they acknowledge that that’s what they gotta do and that’s the right thing to do? I think so.”
This story originally appeared as “An Alarming Number of California Whales are Getting Caught in Fishing Lines” on Pacific Standard. Subscribe to the magazine in print and follow Pacific Standard on Twitter to support journalism in the public interest.