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Untangling a whale of a problem for environmentalists and fishermen

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A whale is seen underneath the Golden Gate Bridge with entanglement scars on its tail. (Courtesy Joe Meuleman/Golden Gate Cetacean Research)
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It’s another lively summer in The City’s waters. For the second straight year, humpback whales followed anchovies and other prey into the Bay. San Franciscans fortunate enough to see their antics have delighted in whales’ sprays, jumps and dives. But one spectator recently noticed something alarming as he watched the show from the Golden Gate Bridge.

“I saw a whale that had apparently escaped a line that had been trapped around its tail, just in front of its flukes, and had cut into the flesh,” Bill Keener with Golden Gate Cetacean Research told me.

For the last few years, reports of whales entangled in fishing equipment, primarily Dungeness crab gear when equipment could be identified, has increased. Last year, 71 cases were reported off the West Coast, the highest number since federal record keeping began in 1982. Many incidents coincided with the irregular opening of 2016’s Dungeness crab season. But the threat crab fishing poses to whales isn’t unique. A federal report warned of the risk in 2013.

California agencies must work to untangle this mess. The failure to act has placed whales and the people who care for them in danger numerous times in just the past month.

A wounded humpback was mostly freed from Dungeness crab gear in Southern California over the weekend. Two weeks ago, an entangled humpback thrashed around in front of helpless whale watchers in San Diego. A week before that, off the Crescent City coast, four responders worked with fishermen to free a humpback that was held almost vertically in the water, unable to move and at risk of a painful, slow death.

“It’s not a simple matter to walk up to a whale and cut it free,” Pieter Folkens, one of the responders, told me. “We are putting ourselves in a dangerous situation.”

In early July, a fisherman was killed after freeing a right whale.

Despite these tragic stories, California has not imposed requirements on the fishing industry to reduce whale entanglements. In 2015, the state convened a working group of fishermen, environmental groups and experts to address the issue. They initiated pilot projects and studies, as well as urged fishermen to adopt better practices voluntarily. But more is obviously needed.

The environmental nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity wants the state to restrict Dungeness crab fishing in critical hotspots like the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Last year, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife urged fishermen to set fewer traps in the protected 6,094-mile area. But the Center doesn’t believe voluntary efforts are enough to help animals protected under the Endangered Species Act. It initiated a lawsuit to compel action.

“The staggering amount of gear currently allowed is creating a deadly obstacle course for whales in some of their most important feeding areas,” Kristen Monsell, an attorney with the nonprofit, told me.

Currently, the state’s working group is gathering information to support potential restrictions off Monterey’s coast. Members have told me they don’t want to prohibit Dungeness crab fishing in areas the whales don’t frequent. Doing so would place an unnecessary burden on fishermen who are already struggling with season delays and smaller catches.

But until the state issues a major response to this giant issue, San Franciscans who care about the whales they love watching will worry about the crabs they love eating. This isn’t fair to the fishermen who report and rescue entangled whales and have dedicated themselves to finding a solution with the state.

“We want to do everything we can to inspire confidence and to ensure the public knows their resources are being harvested in a sustainable and environmentally responsible way,” Noah Oppenheim, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, told me.

The commitment from fishermen to untangle this dilemma is a good sign. To protect whales and the people who catch San Francisco’s iconic seafood, the state should speed up fair restrictions on Dungeness crab fishing. With plastic pollution, drilling, boat traffic and other man-made hazards, these majestic giants of the sea deserve a place to eat their dinner in peace. If you see lines, traps or buoys wrapped around a whale, please keep a safe distance of at least 100 feet and report it to 1-877-767-9425.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

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