Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association protecting our ocean wilderness through public stewardship
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Untangling the Future

Entangled Right Whale. Photo: NOAA

By Allan Schreiber

In mid-May, boaters off Moss Landing in Monterey Bay spotted a young humpback whale entangled in commercial fishing gear. It was the second such sighting this spring; another humpback had been seen entangled in gear in April. While tour boats stood by to mark the humpback calf’s position, a trained disentanglement crew from NOAA arrived.

NOAA operates a Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program with trained personnel who are licensed to attempt disentanglement procedures in such cases as the Moss Landing humpback. In this case, the team decided against attempting to remove the gear. The whale was swimming in an unpredictable manner and its mother was seen nearby.  Moreover, after as close an inspection as possible, the experts decided that this was not a life-threatening situation.

There have been cases of humpback entanglements in the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary in the past. The most publicized case was in late 2005, when an adult female was seen wrapped in approximately 20 lines from crab pots. These lines can be 240 feet long and have weights attached along their length. The divers, who cut the lines off the whale at great risk to themselves, rescued it.

Gray whales also are in danger of entanglement with crabbing gear, since their annual migration to and from Baja California occurs during Dungeness crab season. Approximately 170,000 crab pots are set in the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary during this time, each with lines and buoys attached. Worldwide, a 2003 study by conservation biologists estimated that over 300,000 whales and dolphins die each year after becoming entangled in fishing gear.

Bob Wilson, FMSA Interim Executive Director, said, “These whales, thousands of which are on the Endangered Species List, must navigate a virtual mine-field of lines and equipment. We need to act now to minimize the risk of potentially fatal entanglement.”

The Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association is currently working with the Sanctuary to develop a marine debris location and removal program. Current plans call for focusing on crab traps in an initial stage, utilizing NOAA resources to locate abandoned gear and making use of local fishing boats and crews to remove them.

If this plan is implemented and proves successful, a more wide-ranging program could be a second phase. It would involve using sophisticated sonar to locate such gear as lost or abandoned nets. These often float submerged for long periods of time, still fishing and potentially endangering cetaceans such as the sperm whale pictured in a recent Upwelling article.

Photo: Turtle caught in net: NOAA