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With whales in trouble, conservationists, fishers, and others team up to protect them » Yale Climate Connections

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.”

Besides planes, ship surveys and satellite telemetry are also used to count whales, and a number of other conditions are also monitored and used for adaptive decision-making, which is a strategy with the flexibility to change recommendations based on changing conditions. The actions can include fleet advisories to depth requirements for gear. In some cases, areas are closed to fishing.

“The commercial fishery for Dungeness crab is one of largest in California, and it has the most lined trap gear out there, so we started with that,” says Ryan Bartling, senior environmental scientist supervisor for the Whale Safe Fisheries Project for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The stakeholders set out to find adaptive management solutions using the best available data to reduce the risk of entanglement. The Risk Assessment and Mitigation Program analyzes data in seven different zones along the California coast, managing each one individually according to findings within that zone.

‘We are the conservationists’

Ogg has fished since childhood and spent his teenage years diving for abalone. After working more than 40 years as an electrician, he focused on commercial fishing full-time for crab and salmon, as well as black cod and albacore. He is a member of the working group and several other groups focusing on fishery-related issues.

“We’re all, believe it or not — people may not agree with me — but we are the conservationists,” Ogg says. “This is our life. This is what we do in the water. To destroy or impact the resource or another animal that is not a targeted species is unacceptable and we are very, very careful about that.”

The working group was set up in 2015 and meets regularly during the fishing season in an advisory capacity. The state legislature has authorized the director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to institute restrictions and closures as necessary.

“The impetus of bringing that group together was to bring together these really diverse and, frankly, sometimes adversarial stakeholders to the same table with the common goal of supporting thriving whale, and now sea turtle, populations as well as a thriving and profitable commercial Dungeness crab fishery,” says Jenn Humberstone, fisheries project director for the California Oceans Program at the Nature Conservancy.

Data-informed decision-making

A key part of the project is collecting data and using that information to make decisions. “Without data, we risk decisions that could lead to danger for whales if we don’t know that they are actually present on fishing grounds and continue to allow unrestricted fishing, or they might unnecessarily restrict fishing opportunities if we don’t have data,” Humberstone says.

Timing is one of Ogg’s biggest concerns. If he and other fishing professionals can’t get crab to market when people are willing to pay for fresh crab during the holidays, they can take a big financial hit.

“The timing is devastating. We have traditionally in our area here had a Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, Superbowl, Chinese New Year market,” Ogg says. “All of those dates are incredibly important in the distribution of the resource. If we don’t have those markets, and we can’t bring them in at that [rate], then the value of the resource drops.”

Other measures to protect wildlife include a lost fishing gear recovery program and a network of first responders identifying tangled whales and helping them get free. The Nature Conservancy reports that in 2018, nearly 250 people who fish received wildlife disentanglement training, and as of August 2021 more than 450 people completed online courses on the topic. Technology could also help, as people are working on fine-tuning types of alternative gear — such as ropeless or pop-up systems — that reduce wildlife entanglement risk.

Around the world, hundreds of thousands of marine mammals and sea turtles perish from entanglement each year, according to NOAA, so California’s program is being watched closely. Though the solutions are not perfect, Humberstone says the state is moving in the right direction.

“I think there has been a lot of progress with the solutions that we have developed so far, and we know that this is a really dynamic challenge that’s going to require ongoing adaptation, learning, and innovation,” Humberstone says. “There are still confirmed entanglements that we are seeing, so it’s a dynamic conservation challenge that we cannot say is solved, but it is certainly one that we feel like the solutions that have been developed so far are making an impact.”

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