This year, according to National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) data, there have been 16 confirmed whale entanglements along the West Coast through Sept. 30.
That includes 10 humpback whales, four gray whales, one fin whale and a minke whale; 11 other reports could not be verified.
The vast majority of these reports came from waters along California. Five confirmed incidents were determined to be connected to commercial fishery operations, including three connected to Dungeness crabbing.
While 2021 is on track to show a massive drop from 2016’s high of 56 whale entanglements, it’s come at a cost.
Whales seem to be hanging around Monterey Bay longer due to warmer ocean temperatures, says Geoff Shester, California campaign director and senior scientist with Monterey-based Oceana Conservation Group.
Last year, the crab season was supposed to start Nov. 15, but was delayed until Dec. 23, as regulators sought to avoid more whale bloodshed.
Fisheries have been closed since the end of July, and are currently set to reopen on Nov. 6. But Shester says Dungeness crab season could easily be delayed again this year, depending on whale activity along the coast.
There are economic impacts associated with whale entanglements, too.
Replacing lost equipment is expensive, as is removing gear from an animal that has become wrapped up in fishing equipment. An average of 10% of gear goes missing, Shester says.
The California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group—known informally as the Whale Working Group—was created in September 2015 and is made up of industry players, government officials and environmentalists looking for solutions.
After their three-day meeting at the beginning of October, members interviewed by Good Times expressed excitement about technological advances offering hope for both fishermen and marine life advocates.
The Monterey Bay representative on the working group, Dave Toriumi, who’s been crabbing for more than a decade, says he hopes innovative trap systems will prevent season delays while protecting whales at the same time.
“We look at the whales like a good sign—like an omen,” he says. “We don’t want to entangle the whales.”
Shester, who is also part of the working group, says he’s excited about a series of trap systems coming out that would allow fishermen to catch Dungeness crabs without having ropes dangling in the water any longer than necessary.
But there are a series of steps the industry has to go through if the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is to give the new gear the stamp of approval.
“You have to show the Department this stuff’s not going to get lost and make a mess everywhere,” he says, the day before one such trial. “They’re already showing results.”
When crab fishermen drop traps to the seafloor, they leave a buoy—attached by a rope—on the surface. This allows fishermen to find the traps later, and it’s also how fishery agents can check to ensure fishermen aren’t using illegal methods.
Until now, failing to deploy a buoy would have been considered illegal.
However, one proposed system allows fishermen to sink their traps with the buoy still connected. Then, after a set amount of time, the buoy is released—hopefully sending it to the surface without incident.
Getting regulatory approval involves not just cool gear add-ons, but also incorporating these modifications into a digital application that allows regulators to locate traps underwater without a visual cue, equipment manufacturers say.
Karen E. Edson, a spokesperson for NOAA Fisheries, says introducing high-tech gear into the fishing world would require significant economic, technical and cultural changes for fisheries.
“How fishermen and their gear interact with each other … and gear from other fisheries would have to adapt,” she says. “If there were a high demand from the fishery to see these innovations move forward, I think approvals and the subsequent problem-solving needed to overcome these big challenges would move more quickly.”
There are at least four pop-up gear systems under development, and at least one proposed “breakaway rope” design meant to let a whale escape if caught, Shester says.
Out of 50 tests of San Diego-based Sub Sea Sonics’ Acoustic Release system, ropes only got tangled twice after the buoy was released to the surface, he says, adding that’s approaching the margin of error demanded by regulators.
Silicon Valley-based Blue Ocean Gear sells an already-legal circular GPS buoy that can be attached to crab traps and fishing nets. Ariana Low, who studied engineering at Santa Clara University, is the company’s project manager.
She was inspired to take the position after encountering lost fishing equipment while working with a recreational freediving team on the North Shore of Oahu.
“It just really opened my eyes,” she says of the errant sinks and hooks that turned up as she assisted spearfishermen attempting to source their dinner.
Blue Ocean Gear CEO Kortney Opshaug says their Internet of Things device was created with plenty of input from the fishing industry.
“It’s important to recognize how hard the fishermen have been working to find solutions,” she says. “Anything we can do to help keep fisheries going in the face of some of these environmental realities, we should put energy towards that.”
Russ Mullins, the owner of Ferndale, Washington-based Longsoaker Fishing Systems, has been developing an underwater buoy deployment system.
The netting can attach to traps fishermen already own, he explains.
“Everyone cares about where their seafood is coming from,” Mullins says. “Our goal here is to come up with vertical solutions.”
According to Oceana’s Shester, if all goes well with the tests—and, crucially, if regulators like what they see—some of the new equipment could be authorized as soon as April 1.
Fish and Wildlife Senior Environmental Scientist Ryan Bartling says the whale working group meeting was well attended and covered a lot of ground; he declined to comment on the pop-up systems, citing the fact that they’re currently being evaluated through the department’s Risk Assessment Mitigation Program.
The group will help the department implement a mitigation program throughout the year, he notes, but he wouldn’t comment on potential crab season delays due to whale activity.
“We will be conducting aerial surveys this week and reviewing all other available data,” he says.
Department officials plan to report their whale-traffic findings to the working group early next week, with a final decision about the season-opener expected at the beginning of November.