A Collaborative Effort to Address the Pressing Issue of Whale Entanglements

Doug LaughlinAlerts, Crab and Shellfish

Doug Laughlin, Board of Directors, Coastside Fishing Club


As a recreational fisherman for over 50 years, my love of Dungeness crab fishing runs deep. So, when I learned that whales were becoming entangled in fishing gear off California more frequently in recent years, I joined other recreational and commercial fishermen to work with state and federal agencies, whale researchers, disentanglement experts, and representatives from environmental organizations towards a shared goal to support thriving whale populations along the West Coast and a thriving and profitable Dungeness crab fishery.

As you might expect, I have learned that the issue of whale entanglements is both complex and challenging.  The recent increase in reported entanglements is likely caused by a variety of factors, including changes in the distribution and abundance of whales, changes in fishing effort, and an increase in public awareness and reporting.  Additionally, recent oceanographic and biological changes leading to delays and closures of commercial and recreational fishing seasons, coupled with growing whale populations and shifts in their feeding patterns may have resulted in an increased risk of whales interacting with fishing gear over the past 3-4 years. While it is positive that 2017 entanglements are lower than historic highs in 2015 and 2016, there is still a need to have a system in place to address circumstances that elevate entanglement risk.

Although there are many unknowns, multiple fisheries have been identified as entangling whales, including the Dungeness crab fisheries on the California coast. In September 2015, the Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group (the Working Group)—of which I am a member—was convened by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), in partnership with National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), California Ocean Protection Council (OPC), and is facilitated by Strategic Earth Consulting.  The Working Group is dedicated to gaining information to help support the state in address this issue and is supporting a number of projects to better understand whale behavior, fishing dynamics, and the relationship between the two. These involve gaining a clearer picture of forage patterns and ocean conditions, testing out electronic reporting tools to gather a better understanding of where fishing is occurring, conducting aerial and vessel surveys to document the distribution of whales and fishing gear, and exploring the merits of gear innovations that could help reduce entanglement risk. The Working Group has developed and distributed two editions of a ‘Best Fishing Practices’ guide to encourage fishermen to voluntarily reduce the amount of surface gear that is used at various depths. Additionally, recreational fishermen have contributed to an online trip log to better understand recreational fishing dynamics (visit http://bit.ly/2017-18DcrabRecLog to see the input received so far and please feel free to contribute if you are still fishing Dungeness crab).

Collectively, these projects are starting to inform a draft ‘Risk Assessment and Mitigation Program’, or RAMP, that the Working Group started to design last year and is piloting (voluntary) during the 2017-18 fishing season. The RAMP is built to identify circumstances that can elevate risk and develop pathways for addressing these situations. Rooted in best fishing practices, the RAMP is designed to involve a range of experts, including fishermen, to work together to evaluate risk, identify information needs, and assess the need for management options for recommendation to CDFW.

The draft RAMP is in its beginning stages of development. The voluntary pilot will provide an opportunity to test out the draft RAMP’s structure and function, explore aspects of the RAMP that could benefit from legislative support, and to learn what may need to be adjusted and fine-tuned, including the program’s working assumptions and guiding principles. Recreational and commercial fishermen and others involved in the California Dungeness crab fishing industry are invited to review the draft RAMP approach and provide feedback on all aspects of the program. Ideas on how to improve the Working Group’s approach to assessing risk, considerations for possible management measures, and suggestions related to new technologies are welcomed and encouraged. Additionally, the Working Group is planning to hold a select number of meetings in 2018 at port locations in an effort to share information and address questions. Information learned during the 2017-18 pilot phase will be shared with CDFW, NMFS, OPC, Fish and Game Commission, Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture, and California Dungeness Crab Task Force in summer/fall 2018. The Working Group will also be sharing key outcomes with the Oregon Whale Entanglement Working Group.

I very much appreciate the chance to inform the HASA community of our efforts, and I look forward to sharing future news and updates with you all about the Working Group’s progress. For more information about the Working Group’s efforts and the 2017-18 RAMP pilot, including opportunities to provide feedback and share your expertise, visit http://www.opc.ca.gov/whale-entanglement-working-group/ or contact the Working Group at info@cawhalegroup.com.