El Niño Causes More Whales to Get Stuck in Nets

Entangled whale net (Christine Armario / Associated Press)
Christine Armario / Associated Press

The warmer temperature of the eastern Pacific Ocean due to El Niño this year has created a life-threatening problem for whales traveling through the waters of California, luring them toward the coast, where they are entangled in fishing gear used by fishermen, crabbers and lobstermen.

60 whales have been discovered tangled in commercial fishing lines this year, over 400% higher than a normal year. Whales can die from rope stuck in their mouths or wrapped tightly around their fins or tail. According to NOAA, twelve whales on average are found annually entangled in fishing lines

The crab fishery, environmental groups and state and federal agencies have been analyzing the situation and seeking a solution.

Jim Anderson, a crabber heading the save-the-whales effort from the state’s 562 licensed Dungeness crab fishermen, told Gillian Flaccus of the Associated Press, “This time of year, the whales would be offshore but with the blob of warm water, they’re right off the beach. They’re right where the crabs are. You go talk to a guy who’s been fishing for 40 or 50 years and he’s never seen anything like it.”

State and federal agencies have sought help from the $100 million-a year Dungeness crab fishery. Trinidad crab fisherman Craig Goucher said crab fishermen have been using crab pot recovery program for the last two years, acknowledging, “We expect we can do more to improve this situation and will implement tested ideas when they are proven to reduce whale entanglements,” he said.

One possible remedy offered is a “sinking rope” that reduces slack in the fishing lines. Another solution could involve crabbers using GPS-enabled iPads for their pots.

David Anderson, captain of Capt. Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Watching Safari in Dana Point, California, who alerted authorities to the problem, said, “We’ve had more than 50 entangled whales this year off California, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Most of the whales we’re not seeing — and it’s a huge problem.”

A 2013 report by NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service stated, “Along the U.S. west coast, much is unknown about why, when, where, and how whales are seriously injured or killed due to entanglement, how this threat may be affecting their populations, and what can be done to minimize the risk.”

The World Wildlife Fund asserts that there are 10,000 to 25,000 blue whales in the world.