State responds to ‘horrific’ entanglements

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – The state is launching an unprecedented effort to address whale entanglements with commercial fishing gear that were described as “horrific” during a legislative hearing.

Chuck Bonham, the director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), announced the plan at a Nov. 28 statehouse hearing chaired by Senator Mike McGuire.

“No other state agency to our knowledge has taken its commitment to marine mammals this far,” Bonham said.

He told lawmakers that the CDFW has given notice to the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of its intent to submit a whale conservation plan. The Dungeness crab fishery is the source of most entanglements and Bonham said the plan will “define the measures we would take to minimize and mitigate any impacts” and will provide the “regulatory certainty that our crab fleet needs through a federal permit.”

The hearing of the Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture was held at Aquarium of the Bay in San Francisco and featured several presentations. The most striking one included graphic photographs and descriptions of entanglements whose disturbing emotional impact was commented on by subsequent panelists.

‘Fear and stress’

Pieter Folkens, the leader of NOAA’s entanglement response team, detailed the severe effects of entanglements.

He reported that team members “see quite a bit of physical deformation, both on the appendages and other parts of the body” and amputations of appendages.

Amputations usually occur “when a line cinches around the appendage and then it starts to degrade and cuts off circulation, and then it essentially falls off.”

Entanglements cause “nutritional stress, which is one of my greatest concerns because it demonstrates an immense amount of suffering that the animal is going through,” Folkens said.

Showing a photograph, Folkens added, “For an animal to get into this condition, it takes probably a month or two to end like this and it’s all a period of fear and stress.”

Entanglements also lead to lacerations, infections, infestations and drownings, he said.

Scott Benson, a NOAA fisheries biologist, said there have been 450 whale entanglements reported in California since 1982. The rate spiked at 177 reports from 2014 to 2017, with a peak seen in 2015.

For the West Coast region, there were 26 entanglements confirmed in 2017 and 27 in 2018.  The majority was in California and although confirmed entanglements have dropped from the peak of 48 seen in 2015, the present numbers are still far above the annual average of about 10 confirmed entanglements seen in previous years.

Legal pressure

The joint committee was also briefed on a lawsuit filed against the state by the Center for Biological Diversity alleging that the state’s management of the Dungeness fishery violates the Endangered Species Act. The lawsuit demands a federal Endangered Species Act take permit for the Dungeness crab fishery.

Assemblymember Mike Stone, the joint committee’s vice-chair, said there’s broad awareness that the entanglement issue needs to be addressed definitively and quickly.

“Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, public pressure and the court of public opinion is starting to weigh in more and more significantly,” he continued. “The uptick in whale entanglements puts more pressure on us and everyone in this room to seek solutions, not in the next three to five years but solutions now.”

Stone emphasized the need for “viable solutions on the shortest possible timeline to reduce the horrific things that we’re seeing.”


The state has already taken several actions on the issue. An entanglement working group has developed a Risk Assessment and Mitigation Program (RAMP) which has been codified in in Senate Bill 1309 sponsored by McGuire.

His bill also advances a series of measures, including giving the director of the CDFW the authority to take management actions if elevated risk is identified.

Also, the state’s Ocean Protection Council has gotten $7.5 million from the state budget for programs that address entanglement.

Technological approaches such as ropeless gear are also being tested but Dick Ogg, a commercial fisherman from Bodega Bay, said technofixes have so far proved to be impractical.

Noah Oppenheim, the executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, which is supporting the state in the lawsuit, said the entanglement reduction goals will be realized through the measures outlined in McGuire’s bill.

The whale conservation plan may also include applying for a federal take permit. But Bonham said approval of the plan could take up to two years.

In and out of court

Disagreement over what method will yield the quickest and most effective results was expressed in an exchange between Oppenheim and Kristen Monsell, the Center for Biological Diversity’s Ocean Program Litigation Director.

Oppenheim said federal and state officials, scientists and others agree that advancing solutions through the working group process is a “superior option.”

He added, “At this point I’m confident in the state’s strategy here and we look forward to working with our friends at CDFW on this.”

Monsell said that her group does see “promise” in the working group’s RAMP program “but we do really want to see science-based management measures that significantly reduce the risk of entanglement and do so very quickly.”

She added that it’s “unfortunate that we’re now talking about this at the end of 2018 when we were first raising this issue in 2014  … the whales just don’t have time to wait, nor should they –  the state really has a legal and moral obligation to step up and really make some significant changes.”

Changing ocean: The hearing also focused on the algal blooms spurred by warm water conditions and the production of the domoic acid toxin that triggers Dungeness crab delays and area closures.

The 2015 spike in entanglements coincided with warm ocean water temperatures that changed the distribution of whales and their food, bringing them closed to shore where entanglements are more likely.

The 2015 to 2016 Dungeness crab season was declared a disaster due to domoic acid impacts and McGuire said more funding needs to be allocated for the state’s testing for the toxin.

The entanglement and domoic acid issues will be further explored at a follow-up hearing in the first quarter of 2019.


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