Whale Entanglements on the Rise due to Marine Debris

The Tale of the Plastic Whale - the NEC's team sculpture at the Friends of the Dunes' sand sculpture festival in 2018, depicting a whale entangled in fishing gear. Photo: Megan Sunday.
The Tale of the Plastic Whale – the NEC’s team sculpture at the Friends of the Dunes’ sand sculpture festival in 2018, depicting a whale entangled in fishing gear. Photo: Megan Bunday.

In 2018, the NEC organized a team and participated in the Friends of the Dunes’ Sand Sculpture Festival. The team brainstormed together to figure out what sculpture would best represent the plight of the ocean and spread a message. We chose to sculpt a humpback whale that was entangled in crab pot line and buoys. Fast forward to October 2019 and we’ve witnessed a tragedy that almost exactly mirrors the whale that was sculpted in 2018.

On October 23, a humpback washed ashore at Samoa Beach entangled in crabbing line and buoys and struggling for survival. More than 24 hours later, in order to end undue suffering, the whale was euthanized. Many of us in this community were hit hard by this loss. As a coastal cleanup enthusiast, it was extremely hard not to feel completely helpless about this unnecessary death. My mind races back to all of the crab lines my volunteers and I have found over the years, how I wish I could be out in the water gathering the loose lines before the entanglement happens. But in reality, we’re playing a waiting game hoping that it washes ashore and we can remove it before creatures get entangled.

As environmentalists, we need to find ways to combat the helplessness. Change does not grow in doom and gloom, change grows in positivity and perseverance. I took action to combat the hopeless feeling. First, I headed out to do a beach clean,  because no matter how big or small, any effort makes a tangible difference to the environment when you clean an outdoor space. The second thing that I did was to research and make sure that I had all my facts straight about whale entanglements.

In 2018, 46 whales were confirmed to be stranded from entanglement—an increase from 31 confirmed in 2017 according to a study done by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Smaller marine mammals have a much higher survival rate, as strandings of larger cetaceans often result in death due to dehydration, collapsing under their own weight, or drowning from sand or water covering their blowhole. If you encounter an entangled animal on a beach, take note of your surroundings to help identify the animal’s location and contact the HSU Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline at 707-826-3650.

If you’re a local fisherman or participate in recreational fishing, never leave fishing gear or trash behind. Please also check out the California Dungeness Crab Fishing 2016-17 Best Practices Guide to Minimize Whale Entanglement Risk, which can be found online. If you’re not a fisherman, always remember that you vote with your dollar. If the high number of entanglements and abandoned mariculture debris concerns you, consider eliminating seafood from your diet.

It is more important than ever before to participate in local cleanup efforts. When the male grey whale washed up just two weeks after the humpback, I visited Agate beach to pay my respects and cleanup around him. While there, my friend and I stumbled upon a loose crab pot line, just like the one that caused the tragedy out at Samoa. Any local beach cleaner will tell you that these lines are found all the time. While the grey whale’s death wasn’t caused by entanglement, it fits in with the trend of emaciated grey whales washing ashore up and down the entire Pacific coast. Finding another crab line so close to the time when the Humpback washed ashore really made it apparent how important it is to hit the beaches harder and clean more.

The NEC has sustaining Coastal Programs that make it easy for locals to participate in our cleanups and host their own. We were recently awarded a grant that will allow us to revamp our programs to access more of the community and host more regular cleanups. If you are interested in participating in a cleanup or want to learn more about hosting a cleanup of your own, please visit yournec.org or contact me at casey@yournec.org. In times like these it’s important to remember to stay positive and put our energy toward actions that will make a difference!