Large Whale Entanglement Response Program FAQ

May 2018

What is NOAA Fisheries' Role?

NOAA Fisheries is responsible for carrying out the Marine Mammal Protection Act to conserve and manage marine mammal populations and their habitat and to coordinate responses to strandings and entanglements. NOAA Fisheries works in partnership with regional fishery management councils and state fishery managers to reduce the unintentional entanglement of marine mammals in fishing operations. By reducing the number of large whale entanglements and minimizing the likelihood of large whales becoming entangled in fishing gear, NOAA Fisheries can continue to promote the recovery and conservation of healthy whale populations along the U.S. West Coast.

What is large whale entanglement?

Large whales periodically become entangled in active or derelict fishing gear, or other ropes/lines/chains in the marine environment. Some whales that become entangled are able to shed the gear on their own. However, other whales may be unable to shed the gear and can carry it for days, months, or even years. Whales that are entangled can suffer from injuries, infection, and wrapping that can impair their ability to feed or swim. The drag from the gear or debris can cause whales to expend more energy to swim, can make it harder for them to feed, and can result in starvation. Survival times with an entanglement vary. For example, a recent study found that for North Atlantic right whales that could not shed an entanglement, the average survival time was about five months, though it ranged with some living for many years and others dying immediately.

Who responds to large whale entanglements?

Along the West Coast, NOAA Fisheries’ Protected Resources Division oversees the Large Whale Entanglement Response Network, which is comprised of whale biologists, researchers, naturalists, veterinarians, veterinary technicians, whale watchers, the U.S. Coast Guard, and state agencies. Due to the dangerous nature of responding to entangled large whales, our responders go through extensive training and many years of apprenticeship to learn the proper techniques and protocols to ensure their safety and that of the animals. Responders are experts at understanding whale behavior, biology and health, vessel operations, handling ropes under tension, and coordinating entanglement response teams. This work is done under a permit held by NOAA’s Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program that provides authorization for responders.

Are reports of large whale entanglements increasing?  

Over the last few years NOAA Fisheries has responded to an increasing number of large whale entanglements reported to the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network and Large Whale Entanglement Response Network. In 2017, a total of 31 whales were confirmed entangled off the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington. 2016 saw 48 confirmed cases and 2015 saw 50 cases, the highest annual totals for the West Coast Region since NOAA Fisheries started keeping records in 1982. Between 2000 and 2013, the average was about 10 confirmed whale entanglements reported per year. Entanglement reports may be increasing for a number of reasons including: increasing whale populations, changes in the distribution of fishing effort, changes in the patterns of distribution and movements of whales, and increased public awareness of whale entanglements and reporting procedures. Many of these potential causing factors are, in turn, influenced to some degree by environmental conditions. For example, the late opening of the Dungeness crab fishing season in California in 2016 likely influenced the distribution and concentration of gear in certain areas where whales also congregate.

When and where are the entanglements happening?

Reports in 2017 originated all along the West Coast, but were concentrated in central and southern California. However, entanglement report locations may not reflect where the entanglement originally occurred.

map of Waashington, Oregon, California and Baja California, Mexico indicating locations of whale entanglements.

Geographic Location of Entanglement Reports in 2017

What species are being entangled?  

Several species of whales have been reported entangled in recent years, including humpback whales, gray whales, killer whales, fin whales and blue whales. Humpback whales continue to be the predominant species reported as entangled during recent years. The first confirmed blue whale entanglement was reported in 2015, followed by three in 2016, and three in 2017.

What is the source of entanglements?

The source of entangling gear is unknown for the majority of whale entanglement reports (52%, or 67 of 129, of confirmed entanglement reports from 2015-2017 involve gear of unknown origin) and any line, cable, or chain in the ocean can pose an entanglement risk. Detailed fishing gear guides have been developed to help the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network identify the source of gear that is removed from whales and to inform approaches for reducing impacts from those fisheries. Multiple fisheries on the West Coast have been involved with entanglements in recent years, and the number of entanglements related to each fishery type has varied from year to year. In 2015 and 2016, there was an increase in the number of confirmed whale entanglements associated with the Dungeness crab commercial trap fishery, compared to previous years. Other fisheries identified include: gillnet fisheries, sablefish trap fishery, spot prawn trap fishery, and the spiny lobster trap fishery. As the documentation of entanglements has been improved, NOAA Fisheries has increased its ability to identify details associated with entanglement events including gear type, originating location, the date the gear was set, etc. NOAA Fisheries is working closely with the fishing industry and fishery managers, including the Dungeness crab fishery participants and managers, to promote improved marking of gear to make it easier to identify specific sources of entanglements and develop measures to reduce entanglements. 

Why disentangle large whales?

The International Whaling Commission estimates that worldwide 300,000 whales, dolphins, and porpoises die from entanglements each year, and entanglements are the main human-caused threat to large whales. The documentation collected during an entanglement response can inform researchers and fishery managers how the whale became entangled and may hold insights that can inform new strategies to prevent future entanglements. Disentangling a whale can be dangerous, even for highly trained responders, and can be stressful for the whale involved. By having a Large Whale Entanglement Response Program with skilled responders it reduces the temptation for untrained members of the public to attempt disentanglement themselves. Attempts to disentangle whales by untrained persons not only harm the whale, but it can lead to the injury or death of the untrained individual. 

If responders can confirm that the entanglement is not a threat to the whale’s survival, and/or the whale is likely to shed the gear on its own, responders may monitor the situation, particularly in dangerous conditions, rather than attempt disentanglement. Responders may collect photos and video to identify the whale in the future, document any injuries from the entanglement, and/or take a small biopsy of skin and fat to genetically identify the population that whale belongs to, as well as to identify the individual in case it is ever found dead.

What are the risks to the disentanglement team? 

Whales are wild animals that have unpredictable behaviors. The size and power of large whales create risks to the disentanglement team when they closely approach whales in small vessels to document and remove entangling gear. In addition, the tools used for disentanglements, such as specialized knives, lines, and large buoys, can also present dangers for responders, including being pulled overboard. The techniques that have been developed over the last 40 years rely on working from a small inflatable boat, with hooked knives on long poles that keep responders at a safe distance from the whale and reduce risks.  Even so, accidents do still occur and even trained responders have been injured or killed.

What is being done to address this problem? 

NOAA Fisheries has done significant outreach on the West Coast to the fishing industry, state and federal fishery managers, and the public to make them aware of the issue, promote the development of ideas to reduce entanglements, and improve the reporting of entanglements. California, Oregon, and Washington have all convened working groups to address the recent increase in entanglements and discuss potential solutions to the problem. The California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group, for example, produced an updated Best Practices Guide to reduce entanglements caused by Dungeness Crab fishing gear in 2016. In 2017, funding to promote research to help reduce future whale entanglement risk along the West Coast was provided to multiple groups through NOAA Fisheries’ Bycatch Reduction Engineering Program (BREP). This funding will support research to improve understanding of current gear and fishing practices, as well as potential gear modifications. BREP funding also sup­ported a workshop in 2017 to bring together a diverse group to identify the most promising ideas for innovation to address the entanglement issue along the West Coast.

What can I do to help?

Prompt reporting is the best way to help entangled whales. Report entangled whales to our 24/7 hotline by calling 1-877-SOS-WHALE (1-877-767-9425) or hailing the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF Channel 16. Please stay with the whale as long as it is safe to do so. Never attempt disentanglement or remove any gear without training and authorization. Please try to get video or photos showing the entangling gear but remember to stay 100 yards from the whale and beware that lines in the water could snag your vessel.  Please also understand that it is not always possible to respond to every entangled whale.

Can I get updates on the status of reported whales?

Forming a response to an entangled whale is very complex and requires a lot of time and coordination. Real-time updates are rarely available as the response team must focus on helping the animal in need. NOAA Fisheries’ Regional Stranding Coordinators keep the NOAA Fisheries WCR Communications Team up-to-date on responses in the field. Media inquiries should be directed to Jim Milbury at 562-980-4006 for California cases, or Michael Milstein at 503-231-6268 for Oregon and Washington cases.

Where can I find more information?

Each year, NOAA Fisheries provides an annual entanglement summary that includes species information, guidance for reporting entanglements, and more about NOAA Fisheries’ work in California, Oregon, and Washington.

2017 West Coast Entanglement Report PDF Formatted Document

Fisheries Interactions

Marine Mammal Disentanglement Network