The moment Justin Viezbicke receives a report of a whale wrapped in a crab pot line, the clock starts ticking.
Despite a whale’s size, a single nylon line can do massive damage. As the whale swims, the lines pull and tighten, slicing into the animal’s flesh and cutting off circulation. Whales can lose limbs — and their lives.
“Finding an entangled whale is like looking for a needle in a haystack,” said Viezbicke, a biologist who is one of only three people in the state certified to lead a whale disentanglement. “Granted, the needle is large — but the haystack is larger. And you can only see its surface.”
Because time is of the essence in saving an entangled whale, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and The Nature Conservancy have turned to a seemingly unlikely resource: the crab fishermen themselves.
Last fall, Viezbicke led a voluntary training for crab fishermen in Half Moon Bay. The fishermen were taught how to identify and report an entangled whale — essentially, to serve as “first-responders.”
“These men are out on the ocean all the time,” said Tom Dempsey, the conservancy’s senior fisheries project coordinator. “They’re really the best eyes we’ve got on the water.”
The program was initially set to start in November, when the commercial crab season was supposed to begin and as gray whales were migrating south to breed. But concerns about toxic algae delayed the season until late March. So instead, the gray whales and their new calves will be dodging thousands of crab pot lines on the journey to their northern feeding grounds.
Dempsey said the conservancy used the delay to continue conversations with the fishing community about the program. “We’ve discussed how to structure additional trainings and how to build a longer-term effort here,” he said.
Fishermen say they appreciate the collaborative nature of the initiative — particularly since fishermen so often clash with government officials and conservation organizations.
Few people know this better than Geoff Bettencourt, a fourth-generation crab fisherman from Half Moon Bay. Over the years, his family has seen regulation after regulation pushed through.
“Some agency will see a problem and sue the government, and then regulations are passed that devastate the fishing community,” Bettencourt said.
The whale entanglement program, he said, is a “new way of management and collaboration.” And crab fishermen have responded: About 100 attended the October trainings.
“I really want people to understand that the last thing the fishing community wants is to do any damage,” because fishermen know healthy oceans are good for business, Bettencourt said. “Guys up and down the coast have been reaching out, saying they want to do it.”
The support couldn’t come quickly enough. Reports of entangled whales are skyrocketing. From 2000 to 2012, there were 143 reports of entangled whales. But last year, 64 were reported — the highest number ever.
No one knows why this is happening, but there are a few theories.
Whale populations — particularly humpbacks — have made a comeback since many species of whales were added to the U.S. endangered species list several decades ago. So it’s possible that there are simply more whales to get entangled.
Last year’s unusually hot and dry weather could also be at fault, Dempsey said. In recent years, warmer ocean waters have forced whales to feed closer to shore — and closer to fishing grounds.
Viezbicke, who works for NOAA Fisheries division, has a different theory: “We might be getting more reports because more people know how to report.”
If that’s the case, it would point to the success of awareness programs like the new one in California. Still, Viezbicke believes disentangling whales is a Band-Aid at best. To make a difference, he said, we need to stop entanglements in the first place.
One solution could be to switch gear types or move fishing grounds. But there’s little data on where and how Pacific whales are being entangled, so it’s hard to tell which practices to change.
Viezbicke hopes the new data from crab fishermen will help close this information gap. But, he noted, some whales get caught in fishing gear that’s been drifting in the ocean for years.
Another collaboration between crab fishermen and scientists hopes to address this. California’s Lost Fishing Gear Recovery Project searches the seas for lost or abandoned crab pots. After the gear is fixed, it is sold back to fishermen for a small price.
When the program began in 2008, saving whales was one goal among many. But derelict gear hurts fishermen, too.
“Salmon trollers would get their gear hung up on crab pots. They’d get caught in propellers — it was dangerous,” said program director Jennifer Renzullo, who used to work as a diver, cutting abandoned nets off reefs in Hawaii.
But when reports of whale entanglements increased, the project took off. “Fishermen started calling me and saying, ‘Hey, how can I participate? We think this is really important,’€‰” Renzullo said.
Currently, the program is grant-funded and voluntary, but Renzullo helped draft a bill to make buying back gear mandatory. California’s Dungeness Crab Task Force approved it, and the bill, SB€‰1287, was introduced last week by state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Santa Rosa.
Renzullo thinks programs like these are successful because they come from a place of cooperation. “There is such a rift between agencies in academia and fishermen,” she said. “We try to find ways to build trust and integrate fishermen’s ideas to find a program that’s good for everybody.”
Fisherman Craig Goucher, of Eureka, who has been involved with the program since the beginning, doesn’t know anyone who is against it.
“Everybody likes the ocean clean,” Goucher said, “and we feel it’s our responsibility to clean it, not someone else’s.”
Follow Erin E.A. Ross at Twitter.com/ErinEARoss.