AP Photo/Grahame Long
AP Photo/Christine Armario
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Oregon’s commercial fishing industry is trying to get ahead of a problem that could put California in the middle of a lawsuit and has the potential to drastically change Dungeness crab fisheries on the West Coast.
Last year, 71 whales tangled with U.S. fishing gear off the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington state, as well as neighboring countries — the highest annual total for the West Coast since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration began keeping such records in 1982.
Sixty-six of these incidents happened in California, many of them involving endangered humpback whales tangled in commercial crab gear.
At the end of June, the Center for Biological Diversity announced its intent to sue the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which manages the fishery, for “causing the take of threatened and endangered whales and sea turtles.”
Oregon and Washington state are not named in the potential lawsuit and the two states see fewer reports of entangled whales — only one whale was reported entangled in Oregon’s waters last year. But fishermen, fishery managers, gear producers and sellers, biologists and others associated with the industry have already been brainstorming how to address the issue for a months.
‘Nobody wants that’
An Oregon whale entanglement group, coordinated with help from Oregon Sea Grant, formed recently. It boasts 18 members so far, representing a wide swath of the commercial, science and management communities based around ocean fisheries. The group has already held one meeting and plans to hold another next week in Newport. A similar group has already formed in California and another is in the works in Washington state.
Dungeness crab is an excellent product, maintains Fran Recht, habitat program manager for the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, which was established by Congress to coordinate management of Pacific Ocean resources in California, Oregon, Washington state, Idaho and Alaska.
“It’s sustainable,” she said. “And this is a black eye, and nobody wants that.”
Gear that shows up tangled around a whale in California could easily have come from somewhere farther north, the Oregon entanglement group members say. In many cases, a tangled whale is not always immobile.
This makes it more complicated to pinpoint exactly where any entanglement problems begin and who bears the most responsibility, though commercial crab gear with its long lines that can wrap around whale torsos, fins and tail flukes, has been implicated up and down the West Coast.
In California, there are far more boats — private boats as well as fishing vessels — and dozens of more eyes on the water. With all that traffic, entanglements can happen more often; they are also more likely to be reported when they do occur.
The Oregon Coast, by contrast, is an empty stretch of blue — cold and formidable.
“It’s not so easy to sight a whale that’s tangled,” said Jim Rice, of Oregon State University, the stranding coordinator for the Marine Mammal Stranding Network for the Oregon Coast. “It’s a needle in a haystack, frankly.”
In Oregon, “most of the reports of entangled whales come from fishermen,” he said. “We rely a lot on them to let us know what they see when they’re out there.”
On average, his group, permitted by NOAA to disentangle whales, receives two confirmable reports of entangled whales each year. Many more reports end up being false alarms: gray whales foraging close to shore and near buoys, not in any danger at all.
“From a conservation standpoint, I don’t think it’s terribly serious,” Rice said. Oregon impacts so few whales and the whales impacted tend to be gray whales on their annual migration from California to Alaska, not endangered humpback or blue whales. “It’s more of a humanitarian issue than anything else.”
He is encouraged by how proactive Oregon and Washington state fishermen have been in addressing the issue.
But, Rice said, “I think the challenge is to find means that are not going to be too much of a burden on the fishermen and would have a realistic outcome for the whales.”
Because Oregon sees so few incidents of whale entanglement, it could be hard to measure if changes to gear have positive results.
“It’s going to take testing and it’s going to take time,” said John Corbin, a commercial crab fisherman and member of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission. “It’s imperative for us to at least be looking at gear modifications to see whether or not they’re feasible for the fishery.”
Federal regulators have sent mixed messages in other fisheries.
The Trump administration in June withdrew a rule that would have set strict limits on the number of endangered whales, dolphins and sea turtles tangled in sword-fishing nets in California and Oregon. The fishing industry and conservationists had worked on the rule, published last October under the Obama administration, but the National Marine Fisheries Service decided the changes were not warranted.
In a photo graphic shown during a presentation in March, a single rope stretches across a gray whale’s smooth back. It looks like someone has dropped it there, carelessly. Below water, unseen, that rope twists tightly around one of the whale’s pectoral fin, pinching it in a thick tangle that includes other gear lines, weights and floats.
The graphic appeared at workshop in Portland, the first mass meeting of Oregon and Washington’s fishing industries over the issue of whale entanglement.
A whale tangled like this won’t last long. But freeing it can be dangerous work.
“Entangled whales can become very defensive when approached and may use their powerful tail flukes to strike their would-be rescuers,” Rice said.
Boats can capsize; people might get directly hit by a flailing whale.
“It’s also possible for the responders to get caught up in the lines attached to the whale and lose fingers or get dragged into the water,” Rice said.
Canadian fisherman and marine mammal responder Joe Howlett died Monday after he and a rescue crew freed a trapped right whale in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada. NOAA has since suspended all large whale entanglement response activities until further notice. The agency wants to review its own emergency response protocols in light of the tragedy.
So far, solutions to whale entanglement proposed by the commercial fishing industry include everything from adjusting fishery seasons to changing the gear used.
“Our fishery is more efficient now than in the past and will be more efficient in the future,” reported Oregon crab fisherman Justin Yeager in March. “We can do better. We need to realize the responsibility that comes with being a crab fisherman and make the changes that make a difference.”
He believed the Dungeness fishery could see the most success by changing the behavior and timing of the fishery and improving gear retrieval programs.
The East Coast has already grappled with this issue, though with a different whale and in a different fishery. Traps for that region’s lobster fishery caused serious injury and deaths among endangered North Atlantic right whales.
Even with this example, Sheila Garber, who works for Englund Marine & Industrial Supply in Astoria and is a member of the Oregon whale entanglement group, says there are no solutions yet.
“There are a lot of things the guys have already done,” she said, pointing to the use of sinking lines, or neutral buoyancy lines, both ways to make it so there is less line floating on the surface of the water.
The group needs to gather much more information before it can start posing realistic answers to the problem.
Look at the gray whales, Garber said. Not all of them go north. Some stop midmigration in places like Depoe Bay and don’t go any farther.
“The fishermen actually usually trigger any sort of change,” she said. Gear suppliers like Englund’s try to work hand in hand with fishermen when something like whale entanglement comes up. “But a lot of it comes from the fishermen. It’s a very proactive industry because it’s their way of life.”