Entanglements typically occur when whales come into contact with buoy lines (or rope) that connect to fishing gear on the seafloor, such as traps. In 2018, large whale entanglements were confirmed in the waters of 11 states and one U.S. territory, with more than half occurring off California and Massachusetts. The most frequently entangled whale species were humpback, gray, minke and North Atlantic right whales. In 2018, over 80% of confirmed cases involved gear used in fishing, and half could be directly attributed to a specific fishery.
On the U.S. West Coast, there has been a significant increase in the number of confirmed whale entanglements since 2013, with the majority reported from California. During this period, the most commonly identified source of entanglements was Dungeness crab gear. The majority of entanglements were humpback whales, followed by gray whales. In recent years, other reported entanglements include blue whales, fin whales, sei whales, killer whales and leatherback sea turtles.
In response to concerns over the growing number of whale entanglements, state and federal fishery managers, in consultation with industry leaders and other stakeholders, are collaboratively working to identify and implement solutions to reduce the risk of whale entanglements in the Dungeness crab fishery. As part of this effort, the Foundation is working with the California Ocean Protection Council (OPC) and California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to trial fishing gear modifications and innovations designed to reduce or eliminate entanglements while allowing for continued fishing activity. Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA Fisheries), West Coast National Marine Sanctuaries, and the California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group (Working Group) are advising on the project.
The project will trial pop-up fishing systems and a low-tech breakaway rope design (listed below). These specific innovations were selected based upon recommendations from the Working Group, previous gear demonstrations conducted in September 2019, and the availability of manufactured prototypes.
Results from these trials will guide future testing efforts, and ultimately inform decisions by state and federal fishery managers regarding continued fishing activity during periods of elevated marine life entanglement risk.