Environmentalists Urge Changes to Protect Whales From Crab Lines

Whale Entanglement Team members try to untangle a humpback whale. (Ryan Berger/Whale Entanglement Team, MMHSRP Permit 932 -1489)
Whale Entanglement Team members try to untangle a humpback whale. (Ryan Berger/Whale Entanglement Team, MMHSRP Permit 932 -1489)

More whales got tangled up in crabbing gear along the California coast in 2014 than in any previous year. Environmental advocates gathered data from the National Marine Fisheries Service showing whale entanglements have been trending up for more than a decade; Earthjustice, Oceana and the Center for Biological Diversity are appealing to state wildlife officials to make changes in crab fishing practices.

A letter sent Tuesday to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the state Fish and Game Commission includes charts showing in California 21 whales got entangled last year in the lines fishermen use to haul up crab traps, and five died. Most whales that get entangled are humpbacks and gray whales.

Earthjustice attorney Andrea Treece says whales often struggle to free themselves or can sometimes die in the process.

“The whales that get entangled can have to haul around hundreds of pounds of gear," Treece says, "and sometimes can suffer injuries like having the line cut into their fins. Sometimes if it's in place long enough the fins can actually sort of rot off and self-amputate.”

The letter from the Center for Biological Diversity, Oceana and Earthjustice includes charts based on federal data, showing an upward trend of whale entanglement since 2000. (Earthjustice/Oceana/Center for Biological Diversity)
The letter from the Center for Biological Diversity, Oceana and Earthjustice includes charts based on federal data, showing an upward trend of whale entanglement since 2000. (Earthjustice/Oceana/Center for Biological Diversity)

One place where the entanglements have been particularly noticeable is in Monterey Bay. Peggy Stap, executive director of Marine Life Studies, says she often boats out in response to reports of entangled whales, and works to free them. She points to research that found scars from entanglement are commonplace.

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“Oftentimes they can and will throw the gear," Stap says, "but what makes you wonder is how many are not surviving."

The letter calls for tweaks to fishing gear, like adding weak links in the lines so whales can break free. It also urges putting more than one trap on the same line so there are fewer lines to the surface.

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Larry Collins, head of the San Francisco Crab Boat Owners Association, says he's only just heard about the issue. Collins is also on the state’s Dungeness Crab Task Force. He says he’s game to sit down and discuss solutions, but adds, “for anybody suggesting any fixes before we’ve had our first meeting – it’s a little premature.”

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