West Coast
A blue whale. (Photo: NOAA Fisheries)

CA - With whales in trouble, conservationists, fishers, and others team up to protect them

A California program aims to help the fishing industry and marine wildlife adjust to warming oceans.

Dick Ogg usually operates his commercial crab fishing boat F/V Karen Jeanne based out of Bodega Bay, about 40 miles northwest of San Francisco, but recently he’s also been spending some of his time in a plane looking for whales. Ogg’s work is part of a state program that seeks to help both fishery workers and whales adapt to the changing climate and warming oceans.

Climate change is amplifying conflicts between humans and wildlife, according to a recent Nature Climate Change study. One of these conflicts has put endangered marine animals, including blue whales, humpback whales, and Pacific leatherback sea turtles, off the California coast on a collision course with the state’s lucrative Dungeness crab industry and other fisheries.

During a severe marine heat wave in 2015, more than 50 whales became entangled in fishing gear off the California coast, an enormous increase from just a handful in previous years.

Ogg joined a working group for the state’s Whale Safe Fisheries project, and he says he and others in the commercial fishing fleet are working hard to help the whales.

“We’re doing what we need to do. We are minimizing our interaction. We are doing everything that we can, whether it is reducing the season, changing the line scope, minimizing the amount of gear that we put out, thinking about where we’re fishing,” he said.

Hotter oceans, changing whale diets

The marine heat wave dubbed “the Blob” raised sea temperatures from 2014 to 2016. Krill, the whales’ usual diet, became much harder to find. So the marine mammals began to eat anchovies instead, luring them closer to the shore and prompting many whales to spend winters off the coast rather than migrating as usual.

A harmful algal bloom also caused a delay in the commercial Dungeness crab fishing season, creating a situation where whales and crab fishing boats were in the same vicinity. Whales and other marine life began getting tangled in the ropes connecting crab pots to buoys floating on top of the water.

Marine animals that become entangled in fishing gear can drown, starve, or become injured or infected. Some exhaust themselves trying to get free, or risk being struck by a vessel.

So California officials have brought together stakeholders who have sometimes been adversaries, such as federal and state officials, conservationists, crab boat operators, and recreational fishing enthusiasts, to cooperate on practical solutions to save animals while preserving livelihoods. So far, the Whale Safe Fisheries project is working to improve the situation, but a lot of work remains.

Vital to the program are commercial fishery workers like Ogg, who has been trained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to assist with aerial wildlife surveys, flying along the coast counting whales. “I’m going to be able to do these aerial surveys, and one of the things that does is it gives credibility to their numbers that they’re putting out,” Ogg says. “If the department says there’s 50 whales, and I say I saw that many too, then the guys aren’t going to feel like somebody’s playing a game.”

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