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Whale entanglements skyrocket off the U.S. West Coast

  • Whale entanglements are rising, leading to concerns that current regulations are inadequate.
  • The most commonly entangled whale is the humpback.
  • California’s Dungeness crab fishery is responsible for a third of last year’s whale entanglements.

During the 2016 fishing season, 71 whales were entangled off the coast of Washington, Oregon, and California, the highest number ever recorded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Lines and traps meant for crabs or fish can be deadly to whales that become ensnared in the equipment, often causing dehydration, infected wounds, breathing or reproduction problems, and even starvation.

“Whale entanglements in fishing gear are a problem worldwide. In the United States, the Marine Mammal Protection Act requires ‘take reduction teams’ to meet and come up with solutions to reduce entanglements that are then put into regulations,” said Catherine Kilduff, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD).

While it is up to state governments to manage the fisheries that are threatening whales, federal regulations are meant to protect marine mammals and endangered species such as humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) and blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus).

An entangled humpback whale. Photo source: NOAA

To prevent these species from going extinct, implementation of stricter policies and regulations for fisheries is imperative.

“Extinction is forever, so we have to make the right decisions every day to try to reverse the current mass extinction. Human life depends on it,” explained Kilduff.

Humpback whales account for 76 percent of the reported entanglements, amounting to 54 cases last year. NOAA recorded the other entanglement victims as four blue whales, three gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus), one killer whale (Orcinus orca), and nine unidentified cases.

In 2015, there were 62 total reported cases, signifying that whale entanglements are indeed on the rise off the Pacific coast.

The California Dungeness crab commercial trap fishery was responsible for approximately one-third of entanglements, with 22 total identified cases in 2016. This number has doubled since 2015, NOAA reported.

In the fall of 2015, the California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group convened to address the mounting number of whale entanglements in the state. A Best Practices Guide that detailed suggestions to reduce entanglements was released in the fall of 2016. Recommendations include minimizing the length of the line between buoys to keep lines taut and to reduce the possibility of entanglement.

Despite these guidelines, many policies were not implemented because harmful algal blooms shortened the 2016 fishing season, putting pressure on fisheries to increase yields in a shorter span of time. Under these circumstances the Working Group’s best practices fell to the wayside, according to a press release from the CBD.

NOAA is hopeful that the 2017 season presents new opportunities for positive change. Their Fisheries Bycatch Reduction Engineering Program (BREP) has provided funding for research to several institutions to investigate how fishing practices and equipment can be improved to reduce entanglements.

In an email to leaders at California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the Center for Biological Diversity pleads with them to “show leadership in protecting ocean wildlife and making pot and trap fisheries sustainable by taking meaningful steps this summer to monitor where traps are and close the areas where whales and sea turtles are meeting harm.”

A humpback whale breaching in Monterey Bay, California. Photo source: Dr. Mridula Srinivasan, NOAA/NMFS/OST/AMD.

In addition, NOAA urges policy-makers to consider the yearly abundance and distribution of whales. There are certain areas where whales migrate for feeding or breeding, so anticipating those migrations ahead of time could prevent entanglements. Kilduff suggests that these areas be closed to fishing during times of the year that are important to the lifecycle of whales.

“Whales are important for healthy oceans. The humpback and blue whales are endangered, meaning they are at risk of extinction. If we lose those species, then our ocean won’t function like it used to,” said Kilduff. “The public values California’s healthy oceans for all types of reasons – recreation, seafood, even clean air – and whales are a part of what makes a healthy ocean.”

These and other economic incentives may be just the bait California’s state leaders need to start taking fishing regulations more seriously; losing whales will harm the health of coastal communities, both ecologically and economically.


Kilduff, C. (2017, May 18). Re: Protect Whales and Sea Turtles From California’s Pot and Trap Fisheries [E-mail to C. Bonham & C. Yates]. Retrieved May 24, 2017, from

National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA). March 2017. 2016 West Coast Entanglement Summary. Retrieved May 24, 2017, from

The Center for Biological Diversity. (2017, March 29). California Dungeness Crab Fishery Catches Record Number of Whales [Press release]. Retrieved May 24, 2017, from

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