Aug 20 2015

Spike in Whale Entanglements Along California Coast May Trigger Dungeness Restrictions

— Posted with permission of SEAFOODNEWS.COM. Please do not republish without their permission. —

SEAFOODNEWS.COM [San Francisco Chronicle] By Rachel Swan – August 20, 2015

Record numbers of whales are showing up along the California coastline with fishing line tangled around their blubbery bodies, in a trend that’s bedeviled fishermen, environmentalists and state regulators alike.The entanglements happen when whales run into gear that commercial fishermen use to catch Dungeness crab or other crustaceans. The “line” is a thick rope extending from a buoy on the ocean surface to a heavy trap – or “pot” – on the ocean floor. Whales run into the rope while chasing prey along the coastline, and it gets caught in their mouths.”The whales move where the food is, and they’re feeding, so they’ll have their mouths open,” said Peggy Stap, executive director of Marine Life Studies, a conservation group in Moss Landing. She’s seen whales struggle to eat with line running through their mouths.

In some cases, Stap said, the line tangles around their fins and impedes them from swimming.In one instance in September, Stap said, a fisherman set up 600 feet of line and spot prawn traps in a part of Monterey Bay where humpbacks were feeding. One whale got tangled and marooned, bound by the rope to 25 spot prawn traps and two mud anchors, Stap said. She led the rescue team that disentangled it.”It’s incredibly sad” said Kristen Monsell, an attorney for the San Francisco-based Center for Biological Diversity, one of several conservation groups working to prevent whale entanglement.

Drowning, choking

“If the gear is super heavy, they drown,” Monsell said. “It impedes their ability to feed if it gets in their mouths. If it wraps around their bodies and they continue to grow, they’ll slowly choke.”The surge in whale entanglements evidently began in 2014, when 30 whales were found entangled on the West Coast, and at least seven died from their injuries, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. The previous decade saw about eight entanglements per year along the West Coast. As of April this year, 25 whales were ensnared off the California coastline, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. Among them was a killer whale that washed up near Fort Bragg with rope wounds around its tail. Distressed by the trend, representatives of the Ocean Protection Council, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will hold a public meeting Thursday at the Elihu M. Harris State Building in Oakland. They’ll target the Dungeness crab fishery, which has caused the majority of whale entanglements on the West Coast, Monsell said.Local crab fishermen will also attend the meeting, and many say they, too, are concerned about the problem.”The reality is, a fisherman may not even realize this is happening,” said Dan Lawson, a fisheries biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Among the ideas on the table is a pilot program that would increase the number of crab pots on each fishing line, thereby decreasing the number of lines in the water. Another idea is to create a better logging system to keep track of how much gear is in the water. Many entanglements happen when whales run into broken line or derelict traps that fishermen have long forgotten, Monsell said. Representatives of several conservation groups – including Earthjustice, Oceana and the Center for Biological Diversity – proposed those reforms, and others, in a letter to state officials in April.

Why more entanglements?

Still, experts haven’t yet figured out what caused the sudden rise in entanglements, and some fishermen say they’re being unfairly targeted.”Things have changed, the water’s hot, and the warm water pushed the whales in,” said Larry Collins, a retired fisherman who now serves as president of the Crab Boat Owners Association in San Francisco. “I think this is a one-off.”He may be right, according to Nate Mantua, a Santa Cruz-based research scientist for the NOAA, who also blames changes in the ocean temperature – not the fishing industry – for the recent string of entanglements.Mantua said the same weather pattern that brought drought and increased wildfires in California has also caused the ocean to heat up, leading the “forage fish” that whales eat to seek refuge in a narrow band of cool water by the shoreline. “In the last few months, there have been extraordinary sightings of lots of marine life, and that Blue Planet food-web-type action by the shore,” Mantua said. “Part of that is because the water (farther) offshore has been so lacking in things like anchovies, sardines and squid – the ‘popcorn of the sea.'”Because whales have to follow their prey, many of them are also floating into that narrow band of coastal water, Mantua said. As a result, they risk getting ensnared in the crab pots that fishermen set just a couple miles off the coast.Since scientists still don’t understand what is causing the unusual weather and how long the pattern will persist, the onus has fallen on rescue teams, environmentalists and commercial fishermen to help protect the whales. Some fishermen worry they’ll bear the brunt of the whale-saving effort.

Costly solutions

Jim Anderson, a veteran crabber who mans the Allaine boat in Half Moon Bay, said some proposals, like increasing the number of crab pots per line, would be costly to implement.”It would create all kinds of difficulty for fishermen” Anderson said, indicating that he and his peers would have to purchase fatter rope, heavier buoys and special lifting equipment, just to shift from one to two traps per line. Whales that got entangled would wind up dragging twice as much gear along with them, he said, putting them in more danger of drowning. Anderson also worried that state or federal officials might try to rewrite the regulations for commercial fishing, just to solve a temporary problem. “What if this is something this year because of the drought, and then we get an El Niño and conditions change?” he asked. “And then we’ve rewritten all these laws.”Nonetheless, Anderson said he’d like to find practical ways to help.

Fishermen aren’t villains

Stap stressed that fishermen are not the bad guys.”They’re trying to do their job and earn a living, and they don’t want the whales entangled any more than we do,” she said. Collins, the retired fisherman, said he will attend the meeting Thursday, even though he’s wary of attempts to regulate the fishing industry.”We love the whales,” Collins said. “But we also like making a living, and feeding people Dungeness crab.”


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