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Endangered whales need more protection. So do their rescuers.

Watch these beautiful humpback whales feed in Monterey Bay

The Princess Monterey Whale Watching team caught these humpback whales lunge feeding alongside sea lions in Monterey Bay on July 30, 2017.
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The Princess Monterey Whale Watching team caught these humpback whales lunge feeding alongside sea lions in Monterey Bay on July 30, 2017.

The humpback whale was so severely entangled in fishing gear off California’s North Coast that it couldn’t move and was in danger of drowning. But rescuers couldn’t help because the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had suspended all whale disentanglement attempts after a veteran whale rescuer was killed July 10 by a North Atlantic right whale just moments after freeing it.

Whale rescue teams do important, dangerous work, and they have been overwhelmed. Last year, there were 71 reported whale entanglements, most off California’s coast, breaking the record for the third year in a row.

Luckily for that entangled humpback, rescue operations resumed July 18 – five days after it was first spotted – following updated training. The whale was finally cut loose later that day, though it may still die from its injuries, a common fate after fishing lines cut into flesh and wrap around flukes and tail.

California has taken a few baby steps to address the whale entanglement surge. Last year the Legislature approved Senate Bill 1287 to improve collection of the thousands of lost crab traps and lines that litter our coastline. This year SB 290 aims to provide more funding for the overworked and under-resourced teams that disentangle marine mammals and sea turtles.

But these bills don’t go nearly far enough. That’s why the Center for Biological Diversity is preparing to sue the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to force reforms in how it manages the commercial Dungeness crab fishery, the main culprit in West Coast whale entanglements.

Humpback whales – which accounted for 54 of last year’s reported entanglements – are protected under the Endangered Species Act, as are leatherback sea turtles that also get entangled in crab lines. That means that these entanglements aren’t just tragic; they’re prohibited under federal law.

We’ve worked with regulators and crabbers to address this problem over the past couple of years, and we’ve heard their statements of concern as the problem has gotten worse and worse. But words aren’t enough anymore. It’s time for action now, before the start of the next crab season in November.

Only preventive reforms, such as reducing the number of crab lines in important feeding areas for whales, can save endangered humpback whales and the brave men and women who try to disentangle them.

The Trump administration has been extremely hostile to the protection of whales, sea turtles and other endangered marine species. In June, the administration abruptly canceled a 2015 proposed rule – a compromise recommended by the Pacific Fishery Management Council – to protect marine mammals and sea turtles from the mile-long gill nets used to catch swordfish.

So now more than ever, it’s up to California. Our fishery regulators have a legal and moral obligation to save the whales and protect whale rescuers by reducing the number of entanglements.

Kristen Monsell is an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, based in Oakland. She can be contacted at kmonsell@biologicaldiversity.org.

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