Stories in California

Making the Sea Safer for Whales

Humpback whale.
Jumping Humpback Whale A humpback whale breaching off the California coast. © gudkovandrey -

The primary source of human-caused whale deaths is the accidental entanglement of whales in fishing gear and marine debris. But thanks to collaborative efforts by The Nature Conservancy, fishermen, agency partners and scientists, there are new protections in place to reduce the risk of whales getting entangled in fishing gear off California’s coast.

Each year, whales are accidentally caught in marine debris and the ropes, buoys, and nets that fishermen set out in the ocean around the world. Once entangled, whales can sometimes continue to swim with fishing gear for hundreds of miles. Towing heavy fishing gear makes it difficult for them to eat, move, and reach the surface to breathe.

CREATIVE DESIGN MEETS CONSERVATION (3:12) The tracking devices currently used by recovery teams are expensive, heavy, can exacerbate injuries. The Nature Conservancy worked with IDEO to improve the design and protect whales.

This is a global conservation problem that recently intensified along the coast of California, with record numbers of reported entanglements coming in. A variety of factors may contribute to the increase in the number of reported entanglements, including changes in the distribution and number of whales, changes in fishing practices, and an increase in public awareness and reporting.

Over the last three decades, entangled whales were reported along the coast of California.

Nearly half of them were reported in the last 5 years alone.

New ways to reduce entanglements

In response to urgent concerns around increasing entanglements of humpbacks and gray whales off California, specifically in Dungeness crab fishing gear, the Conservancy joined with fishermen, state and federal fishery managers, scientists and other conservation organizations to form the Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group to understand and address whale entanglements in California.

An Alarming Trend (Hover chart to learn more) Each dot on the chart above represents a reported entanglement. Humpbacks make up the majority of recent entanglements because changes in ocean temperature and prey distribution have pushed them closer to shore in recent years.

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To reduce the risk of entanglements in crab gear, the Working Group first sought to change fishing practices because whales were getting caught in the excess ropes and surface buoys. To address this, the group created a best practices guide that recommended how long the ropes should be and how many surface buoys would allow for safe crab fishing without creating risks for whales. This guide is currently being used by fishermen.

A humpback whale with blue fishing line around its head and fin.
ENTANGLED HUMPBACK Whales can get wrapped in fishing gear and marine debris, which can cause injuries, and sometimes result in death. © Mark Girardeau

These crab pots can also get lost, especially during stormy weather. In some years, this means that thousands of pots are left in the ocean, putting whales at risk of entanglement. Working with partners at the McClintock Lab at UCSB and in the fishing industry, the Conservancy has developed a tool helping fishermen retrieve lost crab gear for a payment before the ropes can snag a whale. It started at the 2016 Fishackathon and since, we’ve fine-tuned it, and the result is a program in which fisherman use their cellphones’ GPS and new software pinpointing areas where lost or abandoned crab pots have been spotted. This program is currently being used in 2 of the major crab ports in California, and has recovered almost 1,500 lost pots since 2015.

Next, using data showing the impact of ocean temperatures on the abundance and distribution of what whales eat, the Working Group was able to develop a new model to predict where whales would be each year.

With partners, we used this information and other details like fishing season timing and whales’ food source locations to pilot an early warning system that would allow fishermen and managers to track these risks in real-time.

California Oceans Program Director for The Nature Conservancy

Once danger is detected, the Working Group can recommend targeted and effective measures to reduce entanglement risks in real-time. Recently, new California legislation (SB 1309), gave the state the authority to restrict Dungeness crab fishing during times of high entanglement risk based on recommendation by the Working Group.

People seated around tables, watching a demonstration of fishing gear.
DUNGENESS CRAB The Conservancy developed this system by working with the people closest to the problem, from scientists to harvesters across California’s Dungeness crab fishery. © Rachel Fisher

The pilot was so successful that it caught the attention of California’s legislature and Governor Brown who secured $7.5 million to scale the approach across other California fisheries.  

Enhancing the effectiveness of responses

Improving the effectiveness of the entanglement response to free whales was also a priority. When a whale is reported as entangled, teams of trained responders try to locate that whale and cut it free of the gear. However, these networks are typically small and poorly resourced. The Conservancy coordinated and helped train nearly 200 fishermen first responders (20 times more than there were in 2015) through a series of in-person workshops and also developed a first-ever West Coast online training course in partnership with NOAA. We are already working with NOAA to create online trainings for the other regions of the U.S., with the goal of engaging thousands of people to help whales in distress.

Additionally, the Conservancy is working with NOAA and innovative design firms IDEO and Level 2 Industries to redesign the heavy tracking devices that are attached to whales when a first responder is unable to free the whale on the first try so that they can be located and disentangled at a later time. These devices are heavy and can exacerbate injuries so the group is collaborating to develop and test new prototypes that would minimize weight and cost.

The Conservancy continues to refine these strategies and tools, and partner with others to scale this work across California and around the world for the protection of whale populations.

Dungeness Crab Q&A with TNC Fisheries Project Director Jenn Humberstone

12/10/2020 - This season, you might have noticed Dungeness crab missing from the Thanksgiving table. That wasn’t an accident, it was the work of a whale protection coalition composed of fishermen, fisheries managers, scientists and conservation organizations including TNC. In today’s oceans, the number one source of human-caused whale mortality isn’t hunting, it’s entanglement in fishing gear and the many lines that connect crab traps to the surface can be especially dangerous. To protect whales, this group worked with the state to postpone Dungeness crab season, under a first-of-its-kind management program California.

We spoke with TNC Fisheries Project Director Jenn Humberstone, who serves as a member of the working group, about the science and collaboration that led to this decision. 

How did your team get involved in this work?
When we saw a sudden uptick in whale entanglements off of California, we recognized an urgent conservation challenge. We acted fast, bringing our strengths leveraging science and partnerships to build innovative real-world solutions. We also know that whale entanglement in fishing gear is the leading source of human-caused whale mortality world wide. The solutions we build with the California commercial Dungeness crab fishery can help other fisheries reduce impacts as well. Our investments here can help protect whales across the globe.

What is TNC’s role in implementing this program?
TNC was a founding member of the working group, the coalition of partners that determines when and how to fish safely for crab. Our team made strategic investments to support the group and its key initiatives, including the first of its kind early warning system to assess and respond to entanglement risk formalized in regulation on November 1. We invested in foundational science to create the program, and our priority now is ensuring its ongoing success. To do this we are developing the next generation of science and tools to radically improve the availability of key information that allows us to evaluate entanglement risk in real-time.

The working group decided to postpone the commercial crab season across the state this year. What are the negative impacts of this decision on the industry?
Thanksgiving is the traditional kick-off to the regional Dungeness crab fishing season, and providing crab for the holiday is an opportunity that fishermen and fishing communities rely on. A decision to postpone means no income to fishermen, their crew, and the downstream businesses that buy and sell crab. In postponing the fishery opener, fishermen have made a sacrifice to protect whales and to protect the long-term sustainability of the fishery.

It seems like fishermen chose to make a lot of sacrifices this season, how did the working group come together to make those decisions?
The ability of this group to make a tough decision like this demonstrates the power of this collaborative approach. The working group brought diverse and at times adversarial interests together--fishermen, managers, scientists, and conservationists--around a shared goal of thriving whale populations and a thriving fishery. Rooted in this common goal, we have built a shared, science-based understanding of the issue. What we saw in November was that this group relied on data, rather than entrenched positions, to make a decision to postpone the opening of the fishery.

What’s next for this work?
Our goal is to promote healthy whale populations and healthy fisheries by engaging fishermen as part of the solution. We are committed to enduring conservation outcomes in the California Dungeness crab fishery, the fishery on the forefront of tackling this challenge on the West Coast. We’re also leveraging scientific advances, tools and solutions we developed off our coast to help other fisheries in and beyond California protect whales.