Beginning in 2014, Oregon Sea Grant Extension researchers noted a dramatic increase in the number of humpback whales, gray whales and even blue whales becoming entangled in Dungeness crab fishing gear along the West Coast. According to NOAA Fisheries, there were 50 confirmed whale entanglements that year, and numbers have remained elevated since. Off Oregon, there were a total of 27 confirmed reports from 1995 to 2017.
Entanglements can occur when whales come into contact with the lines attaching crab pots to surface buoys. The lines get stuck in the back of a whale’s mouth or wrap around a flipper or fluke, where they can become embedded and interfere with feeding.
Threats to the whales, in turn, threaten coastal economies. Oregon fishermen netted a record high $74 million in value in 2017-18.
Fishermen first approached OSU Sea Grant for help in 2017. In response, Sea Grant formed a coalition of diverse interests — industry representatives, environmental groups, gear manufacturers and state regulators. Sea Grant facilitators used conflict resolution tools and collaboration skills to help the working group reach common goals.
Sea Grant gathered information from technical experts, distributed information on how to report entangled whales, developed best practices, conducted fleet outreach, surveyed crab permit holders, and spurred action by state agencies.
The working group also focused on the need for more research. In response, the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission funded the first year of a collaborative research project. The project will leverage U.S. Coast Guard helicopter training missions and citizen science observations to better understand whale movements up and down the coast.
In October, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife proposed potential changes in regulations that were clearly drawn from ideas developed within the working group discussions.
Sea Grant’s work has also spread to northern waters: Amanda Gladics, an OSU Extension fisheries management specialist, and her team provided support and technical advice for similar efforts in Washington.