As whale migration season kick in, it’s important for anglers to do their part to reduce the number of entanglements, know and abide by the most up-to-date regulations, and know what to do if you find or cause a whale entanglement.
Gray whale migration is officially in season. Every October, the gray whales of the Pacific begin a two-to-three-month migration from the cold Alaskan seas to the warm waters of Baja, California. At nearly 14,000 miles round-trip, it is the longest annual migration of any mammal. Then, the gray whales travel to the warm lagoons of Baja, California, to mate and give birth to their calves.
For anglers, this means proper management of fishing gear and techniques to avoid entanglements and abiding by rules and regulations.
Gray whales are at high risk of becoming entangled in fishing gear. Once entangled, whales may drag and swim with attached gear for long distances or be anchored in place and unable to swim. Events such as these result in fatigue, compromised feeding ability, or severe injury, which may ultimately lead to death.
Navigating your boat improperly when encountering a whale poses a risk not only for you, your passengers, and your boat but also opens the potential to harm the whales. According to boat-ed.com, if you are on the water and you encounter a whale, it is recommended that you should:
- Avoid excessive speed or course changes within 500 yards of whales.
- Do not approach within 500 yards of North Atlantic right whales.
- Approach with extreme caution within 100 yards of any species of whales other than North Atlantic right whales.
- Approach whales from the side—not head-on—and don’t box them in.
- Don’t cut off their path or give them a reason to re-route.
- Don’t separate mothers from offspring.
- If a whale approaches within 100 feet of your vessel, put your engine in neutral. Do not re-engage your engine until the whale is observed on the surface, outside of the 100-foot zone.
- If you see one whale, expect to see more in the immediate vicinity.
In addition, according to Matthew Burks from NOAA, “we recommend that vessels remain 100 yards from whales whenever possible.”
Another threat the whales face, which is heightened during their migration, is vessel strikes. Collisions with all sizes and types of vessels are one of the primary threats to marine mammals, particularly large whales. Gray whales are vulnerable to vessel strikes because they feed and migrate along the U.S. West Coast, which has some of the world’s heaviest vessel traffic associated with some of the largest ports in the country. Gray whales may also be vulnerable to vessel strikes in the inland waters of Washington and feeding areas along the Pacific coast.
If you host whale watching, it is also important to be conscious of the whale’s route and avoid any and all disturbances that may affect the whale’s behavior.
Additionally, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife reminds both commercial and recreational fishers to avoid setting sport crab fishing gear in areas where whales are transiting or foraging and to follow best practices, as described in the Best Practices Guide.
According to speciesunite.com, the fishing industry proposes the deadliest threats to marine giants because of entanglement in fishing gear and “ghost nets,” which is fishing equipment lost or abandoned in the ocean. The International Whaling Commission identifies entanglements as the main human-caused threat to large whales, estimating that worldwide, 300,000 whales, dolphins, and porpoises die from entanglements each year.
According to NOAA, if you happen upon an entangled whale, you should:
- Prompt reporting is the best way to help entangled whales. Please stay with the whale if it is safe to do so.
- Safety First! Because distressed whales may act unpredictably, they do not closely approach the animal. Never attempt disentanglement or remove any gear without training and authorization.
- Video or photos showing the entangling gear can be helpful for our efforts to reduce these entanglements in the future. Please collect and provide video or pictures to NOAA Fisheries but remember to stay at least 100 yards from the whale and beware that lines in the water could snag your vessel.
Gray whales frequently travel alone or in small, mostly unstable groups. However, large aggregations may be seen in feeding and breeding grounds. These large whales can grow to about 49 feet long and weigh approximately 90,000 pounds. Females are slightly larger than males.