LONG BEACH, Calif. - An unusual warming in the Pacific may be having disastrous consequences for the majestic whales that use the waters off California as a migratory super-highway.
This year alone, more than 60 whales entangled in fishing gear have been spotted along the coast - a more than 400 percent spike over normal and a pattern that began in 2014. Scientists believe the whales may be following prey closer to shore as warm water influences feeding patterns, putting them on a collision course with fishermen, crabbers, and lobstermen.
The situation is so dire that crabbers have begun working closely with state and federal agencies and environmental groups to figure out where and how the whales are running into their gear. The ocean mammals also have become entangled in gill nets and lobster gear, but authorities have identified the crab fisheries as the most urgent concern.
"This time of year, the whales would be offshore, but with the blob of warm water, they're right off the beach. They're right where the crabs are," said Jim Anderson, a crabber who's helping to mobilize the state's 562 licensed Dungeness crab fishermen. "You go talk to a guy who's been fishing for 40 or 50 years and he's never seen anything like it."
Whales that have rope stuck in their mouths or wrapped tightly around their fins or tail will eventually die if they can't free themselves. Highly trained volunteer rescue teams are able to disentangle only a small percentage despite tracking devices that allow them to follow the hobbled animals for miles.
Rather than crack down on the Dungeness crab fisheries, which can bring in up to $100 million a season, state and federal agencies decided to tap into the crabbers' collective knowledge to figure out where wayward whales and fishermen are overlapping.
At a training session in Half Moon Bay, 100 crabbers learned how to photograph tangled whales, call them in to a hotline, and then "babysit" them until authorities arrive.
When crabbing resumes this winter, fishermen will work alongside scientists on their boats to test different densities and strengths of rope. It's a promising start but ultimately might not be enough, said David Anderson, captain of Capt. Dave's Dolphin & Whale Watching Safari.
"We've had more than 50 entangled whales this year off California, but that's just the tip of the iceberg," he said. "Most of the whales we're not seeing - and it's a huge problem."