New grants seek solutions to West Coast whale entanglements

Fall 2016

New grants from NOAA Fisheries will fund collaborative efforts between marine mammal researchers and West Coast crab fishermen to head off a sharp increase in the number of large whales that have become entangled in lines attached to crab pots in recent years.

Funding from NOAA Fisheries’ Bycatch Reduction Engineering Program to H.T. Harvey and Associates, a California ecological consulting company, will first pay to study the current configuration of crab pots and lines to better understand how whales may become entangled.

A second grant to the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission (PSMFC) will bring fishermen, marine mammal specialists and others together to explore new gear or practices that may help reduce entanglements. PSMFC will then work with willing fishermen to test the most promising approaches.

“It’s essential that this be a collaboration because the fishermen are the ones who will use anything we develop and it has to work for them, as well as help solve the problem,” said Fran Recht, who specializes in habitat issues at the PSMFC.

The number of large whales entangled in fishing gear has escalated sharply in recent years, with NOAA Fisheries recording 61 whales entangled off the West Coast in 2015. That was the most whales entangled in a single year since NOAA Fisheries began keeping track in the early 1980s.  At least another 50 whales have been reported entangled off the West Coast so far in 2016.

Humpback whales have been the most common species reported entangled, but entanglements have also affected blue, gray and fin whales. Where responders could identify the fishing gear involved in entanglements, the most common type was Dungeness crab pot gear.

humpback whals and baby in blue water

Although entanglements have affected blue, gray and fin whales, the most common species reported entangled are humpback whales. Photo: NOAA

“This has become a serious issue both for fisheries and for whales, and we need the science, conservation and fishing communities to work together to develop effective solutions,” said Penny Ruvelas, Branch Chief for Protected Resources in NOAA Fisheries’ Long Beach office.

The collaborative effort to identify solutions is widely supported by the crab fishing community, industry groups and the fish and wildlife agencies in Washington, Oregon and California. Up to 450,000 crab pots may be deployed annually off the West Coast.

The first phase of the effort will place sensors on crab pot lines to assess how the lines hang in the water and how much tension they experience, said Peter Nelson, a fisheries biologist with H.T. Harvey and Associates. That will help scientists better understand their shape and the forces acting on them, he said.

For instance, sections of crab lines near the sea floor may be buoyant to keep the line off the bottom, while other sections sink. The combination may create loops or slack rope in the water.

“We want a better sense of what the whales encounter out there in the ocean,” Nelson said. “You’ve got different shapes and configurations as currents come and go and the tide ebbs and floods.”

With that information in hand, the PSMFC will organize a workshop of fishermen and others to discuss the results and explore ideas for gear and practices that would help minimize whale entanglements. The workshop will also draw on the latest research on similar problems around the world. PSMFC will distribute notes from the workshop to the fishing community and will identify fishermen willing to try new designs or practices on a voluntary basis and share feedback.

"We want the industry to be involved in the whole process,” Nelson said. “They are essential to the solution and they have many years of experience working with this kind of gear, so they are the ones who know it best and can help think of different ways to approach it.”

This is the fifth year NOAA Fisheries’ Bycatch Reduction Engineering program has awarded grants for collaborative research to reduce bycatch, which is the unintentional catch or entanglement of species other than the ones targeted. A total of $2.4 million was awarded for 18 bycatch reduction projects this year, with a priority on reducing impacts on protected species such as whales, sea turtles, highly migratory species, seabirds and overfished stocks.

Home page photo of whale entanglement, NOAA Fisheries