Humpback whale freed off California coast, entanglement numbers on the rise

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Armed with knives on long poles and high-tech equipment, expert marine rescuers and volunteers painstakingly cut a 35-foot long humpback whale free from a shrimp trap Tuesday afternoon after the large mammal had been trapped for five days off the Crescent City coast.

After the whale, which had been tangled up since Thursday, was set back into the Pacific Ocean about 4:30 p.m., it circled the rescue boat a few times.

One fisherman took the gesture as the mammal’s way to say thank you, said Michael Milstein, spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries West Coast Region, one of the lead agencies helping with this Herculean effort.

“That whale was barely hanging in there,” Milstein told KTVU  on Wednesday. “It’s pretty amazing. And he appeared to be in good health afterward, too.”

Crews took more than seven hours to free it, using drones to help them see how best to cut the whale out of the netting.There were at least 12 buoys on the whale's right flipper and tail. One fisherman counted 180 traps involved, all with lines and anchors weighing down the 30-ton whale.

Fortunately, the whale was able to make it up to the surface for air, but likely didn't eat for that period, Milstein said.

This trapped whale is part of an upsetting and growing trend for many environmentalists, and is the focal point of legal action threatened by the Center for Biological Diversity, where Oakland-based lawyers allege the state of California is not doing enough to protect the endangered whale from commercial crab lines left in the ocean. At this point, there is no punitive action for fishers who end up trapping sea life in their lines and traps.

The number of entangled whales has grown steadily over the last two years.

NOAA Fisheries recorded that last year, there were 71 cases of whales getting entangled in lines off the costs of Washington, Oregon and California – the highest annual total for the West Coast since the federal agency began keeping records since 1982. Sixty six of those whales were reported off the coast of California.  In 2015, 62 whales were reported entangled, NOAA statistics show.

Seven humpbacks have been reported entangled so far this year, Milstein said.

Why the entanglements are on the rise is not completely clear.

But what biologists do know is that humpback whales is the species that get entangled the most, Milstein said, and it’s most often during summertime shrimp and Dungeness crab season.

Milstein said that NOAA has been trying to work with leaders in the the fishing industry leaders to be more aware of what their lines and gear can do.  For example, one strategy may be to get fishers to use “break-away” lines so that trapped whales could set themselves free. Another idea is to restrict the number of traps that can be set.

And it’s not only whales that can be put in dangerous or deadly positions. Sea turtles and even humans have been harmed, too. On July 5, the whale disentanglement community worldwide was set on edge when seasoned wildlife rescuer Joe Howlett died while freeing a whale from a web of fishing gear off the coast of Canada.

Last month, the Center for Biological Diversity threatened to sue California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. Attorneys there allege that the state agency is failing to protect “imperiled whales and sea turtles from entanglements in crab gear” and that those actions violate the federal Endangered Species Act.

Many voluntary actions have been suggested to fishers, the center noted, such as asking crab-vessel permit holders to reduce their number of buoys and remove their gear from the Monterey Bay. But the center's attorneys claim that these voluntary measures aren’t enough, and it seeks to compel the state to restrict the use of crab traps and secure a permit under the Endangered Species Act.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife wasn't immediately available for comment on Wednesday.

“Whales and sea turtles die slow, painful deaths from getting tangled up in crab gear. Skyrocketing entanglements off our coast aren’t just tragic, they’re also illegal, and it’s time for the state to be held accountable,” said Kristen Monsell, an attorney with the Center. “California has a legal and moral obligation to protect these imperiled animals from entanglements before it’s too late.”

Photos and video were taken with NOAA Fisheries MMHSRP permit No. 18786-01.