Comment on Whale Entanglement

Whale entanglement in fishing gear is a global problem. It is a problem off the U.S. West Coast, including Oregon. Fishery gear entanglement is a direct human cause of harm and mortality to cetaceans. Oregon Dungeness crab fishing gear has been found to be a major source of entanglements.  Most such entanglements go unobserved or unreported, so the information we have indicates the minimum.  Many whales carry evidence of previous entanglement through abrasions, scars, amputations, and deteriorated body condition. Some whales are able to free themselves, other die a slow, months-long painful death. Successful disentanglement does not necessarily mean the whale is “saved”.  We do not know survival rates after disentanglement that may be due to loss of function and poor body condition from the entanglement. Disentanglement is not a solution to the problem of whale entanglement.
 
The Oregon Whale Entanglement Working Group (OWEWG) has been working on the issue of whale entanglement in the commercial Oregon Dungeness crab fishery since May of 2017.  There is now a public opportunity to weigh in on this issue.  Our colleagues with the American Cetacean Society-Oregon Chapter are asking for support.  The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has prepared and published a draft Conservation Plan for whale (and sea turtle) species.  The public comment period on the plan runs through Sept. 16.

You may read the draft Conservation Plan here.  Note that the plan also addresses the less-familiar issue of sea turtle entanglement.
 
Comments may be submitted to the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission at https://www.dfw.state.or.us/agency/commission/. There is an email link on the page.

Here is a brief review of key information, as drafted by the ACS-Oregon Chapter:

Under the  Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972, all species are protected from “take” which includes harm and harassment. Vulnerable populations are further protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973. You can read more about the specifics of the MMPA and ESA at https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/topic/marine-mammal-protection. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is the federal agency responsible for implementing the MMPA and protecting marine mammals. Under the ESA any whale entanglement counts as a “take” no matter whether the whale is injured or not for any species on the list. NMFS can authorize permits allowing incidental take for otherwise legal activities, like fishing.  However, they may only authorize take of “small numbers” and not impede the survival or recovery of a population. An Incidental Take Permit Application must be submitted to NMFS along with a Habitat Conservation Plan with details on how this take is being mitigated and reduced, with a goal of minimizing take. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) filed a notice of intent to apply for an Incidental Take Permit (ITP) in April 2019. They have requested to take up to two humpback whales every year for 20 years, up to one blue whale every five years and up to one leatherback sea turtle every 10 years during the 20-year plan.

The ACS-Oregon Chapter suggests these talking points:

  • Page 114 Section 5.6.1.1 Adaptive management measures will begin after the take levels are met or exceeded. Comment: Adaptive management measures need to begin with the first entanglement in order to prevent further entanglements instead of entangling the maximum allowed take.
  • Page 7 -8 Section 1.4.1.1 ODFW will give special consideration to the potential impacts of any management action taken under this CP on gray whalesComment: Nowhere in the Conservation Plan (CP) does it spell out what the special considerations for gray whales are or how they will be used.
  • Page 99-101 Section 5.4.2.1 …ODFW will work to repeat empirical observations of whale distribution at future timepoints, as recommended by the results of this study and as funding and resources allow. ODFW’s intent is to repeat large-scale observation surveys every 5-10 years. Comment: The ITP requires an adequate monitoring program in the CP as a condition of receiving a permit. A survey every 5-10 years is insufficient and ODFW needs to be required to have adequate funding and resources in order to implement an adequate monitoring program as well as the rest of the plan. While use of opportunistic whale sightings and volunteer surveys are useful tools they cannot be relied upon as the basis of an adequate monitoring program. The augmentation of existing surveys, again relying on voluntary participation, needs to monitor the entire coast, not just off of Newport.  
  • Comment: The CP does not specify a cap on number of entanglements that would trigger closure of areas or the entire fishery. A cap limit needs to be designated for a maximum number of entanglements after which closure would be required.
  • Pages 59-62 Section 4.2.  Comment: The anticipated/requested take is calculated based on maintaining current levels of take from 2013 through 2020. The goal needs to be to decrease the take not to maintain current levels of take.