Accidental entanglement in fishing gear is one of the biggest global threats to whales and dolphins. Off all coasts of the U.S., entanglement is growing issue, especially for endangered populations of whales.
In the Pacific Ocean off the West Coast, entanglements have increased significantly since 2013 and reached record levels compared to the historic average. The combination of shifting ocean conditions driven by climate change and the overlap of whale feeding areas and fishing grounds has created sort of a “perfect storm” for entanglement risk.
As we learn more about humpback whale populations in the Pacific, addressing this threat becomes even more important. Although humpback whales are generally a success story of protective laws like the Endangered Species Act, some populations – including two distinct groups that spend a lot of time off the West Coast – are still endangered and struggling to recover. In addition, even healthy populations are now facing new threats from climate change, which can make them more vulnerable to entanglement and ship strikes.
This has introduced new challenges for the agencies that manage fishing activities. New solutions and regulations are being developed to reduce the risk to whales and safeguard the fragile growth of some populations and support the recovery of ones that are still endangered. Unfortunately, West Coast states have been slow to create and implement these new regulations, and entanglements have continued at high levels – in fact, 28 entanglements were confirmed off the U.S. West Coast in 2022 alone.
WDC has spent several years providing input to agencies in West Coast states and is an appointed member of the newly created Oregon Entanglement Advisory Committee. As measures to reduce entanglement risk continue to evolve, WDC will use our expertise to review proposed regulations, assess available scientific information, and advocate for the best solutions for whales and other marine life.
For example, the state of Oregon is currently reviewing temporary regulations that were enacted in 2020 and creating new, more long-term rules to reduce entanglement risk in the commercial Dungeness crab fishery. In a meeting earlier this year, WDC and other members of the Advisory Committee had an opportunity to review the results of the temporary regulations and the proposed next steps. Based on that discussion, we are providing input as the new regulations are developed and advocating for more analysis of potential measures, additional public review, and more dynamic rules that can adapt to the presence of whales off the Oregon coast.
While some tried-and-true measures are known to reduce entanglement risk – any action that decreases the chance that whales and fishing gear are in the same area at the same time – the innovative technique of on-demand fishing may allow whales and fishing activity to more safely coexist. Testing is underway in the U.S. East Coast and Canada, but the West Coast is lagging in support and development of this modern fishing technology. In addition to stronger measures to protect whales from entanglement in fishing gear now, West Coast states need to support fishers in testing and further developing on-demand fishing gear to ensure a healthy future for fishing and whales.