Entangled Whale Freed As Commercial Crab Fishing Season Gets Underway

Dec 17, 2019

The commercial Dungeness crab fishing season is now open on the Central Coast. The season was delayed a month over concerns about possible marine entanglements with fishing gear. 

So far this year, there have been 23 confirmed whale entanglements along the West Coast, according to NOAA Fisheries. Six were a result of commercial Dungeness crab gear. Crab pots sit on the ocean floor with lines stretching up to the surface.  

Around four years ago, the number of whale entanglements was much higher. It peaked in 2016 with 52 entanglements along the coast of California, 22 of which were Dungeness crab entanglements. 

To reduce this risk, a working group formed in 2015. It includes crab fishermen, environmental representatives, disentanglement professionals and state and federal agencies. Called the Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group, members work to establish best practices, like eliminating excess line floating on the surface of the water.  

Karen Grimmer, resource protection coordinator for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, is an advisor to the working group.  

“For the sanctuary, whales are an iconic species. They're very valuable both for the economy in this area and just as a natural resource. So we don't want to see whales entangled. Neither do fishermen,” Grimmer said. 

With commercial crab fishing now underway, Grimmer says the working group will be testing ways to improve the gear, like using lines that are breakable. They’re also looking into what’s called pop up gear. 

“There's no lines. All the lines are compacted down onto the trap. And then with an acoustic signal that the fisherman uses, it releases the line and buoy, which goes up. And then the trap is retrieved,” Grimmer said. 

The working group will also complete monthly risk assessments, looking into the number of entanglements. 

Just a couple of days before the 2019 crab fishing season started, rescuers from multiple agencies freed an entangled humpback in the Monterey Bay. 

A fisherman first spotted the whale on December 9th. 

“It's like looking for a moving needle in a moving haystack,” Peggy Stap said. 

Stap, co-founder of Marine Life Studies’ Whale Entanglement Team (WET), says her team and other partners spent the week searching for the whale. On Friday, December 13th, TowBoatUS Santa Cruz spotted the whale again.

Stap says it took a team effort to free the whale. WET used their specialized vessel known as the whale ambulance.

Marine Life Studies' Whale Entanglement Team works to free a young humpback from fishing gear.
Credit Marine Life Studies’ Whale Entanglement Team (WET) ® under NOAA’s MMHSRP Permit Program # 18786-04

“It's a real slow, step-by-step process. We assess the entire situation because you need to find out what's going on underneath the water as well as above the water,” Stap said. 

Fishing gear was wrapped around the body of the young whale. The rescue team determined the line would cut into the whale’s body as it continued to grow. 

It’s unknown what kind of fishing gear the whale was entangled in. Stap says whales can get tangled in all sorts of things.

“Derelict gear, you know, gear that's fallen off a ship or discarded or whatever, because you’ve got to think about fishing for eons. There's also other things they get tangled in. We had one that was entangled in a metal frame,” Stap said. 

Stap and other responders are actively searching for another whale that may be entangled in the Monterey Bay. If you see an entangled whale, call 1-877-SOS-WHALE (1-877-767-9245) and Stap says try to standby to keep eyes on it.