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How Entanglement Endangers Whales

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Around 150 endangered ocean species live in U.S. waters. Several include whale species in California’s water, like gray, blue, fin, and humpback whales. A whale entangled in fishing nets or waste can become injured or drown. In this short guide, you’ll learn more about marine life entanglement and how we can solve this critical problem. 

What is Entanglement?

Marine life can become entangled in fishing nets and other debris. While it happens to any sea creature, whales are especially vulnerable. When fishing operations leave their nets behind, whales may swim into them and get trapped. Large quantities of floating refuse can collect and entrap marine animals that swim into it. 

How Does Entanglement Affect Whales?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicates that the humpback whale is the most frequently entangled whale species. NOAA reported in 2020 that half its whale entanglement reports involved humpbacks. 

Humpback whales’ unique biology presents both advantages and drawbacks. Their long pectoral fins make swimming in shallow water more efficient. These fins also improve their maneuverability and acceleration abilities. However, their long pectoral fins are likely to get tangled in fishing nets. Humpbacks’ rigid bodies and bumpy protrusions increase their chances of entanglement. These biological traits also make escape more difficult. 

Harmful Effects of Entanglement

Entanglement has several negative impacts on marine life forms. NOAA explains that hundreds of thousands of marine animals and sea turtles die every year as a result. Depending on the debris or materials they encounter, smaller animals like porpoises, dolphins, seals, sea turtles, and smaller whales may immediately drown when entangled. 

Entanglement can cause large whales to sustain injuries, which may become infected. Whales unable to escape may become exhausted or experience starvation. They also can’t swim as efficiently, putting them at greater risk for collisions with marine vessels. 

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Who Can Entangle Whales?

Fishing nets are a prime cause of entanglement. Nets may come from both recreational and commercial fishing. These operations use several types of nets:

  • Gillnets use finer meshes, allowing a fish’s head to pass through while trapping it by the gills.
  • Driftnets hang vertically in the water near the surface.
  • Weirs are barriers that trap fish or redirect their movements.
  • Purse-seine nets deploy large netting walls around entire schools of fish to trap them.
  • Longlines consist of a mainline with baited hooks to catch fish and ganglions to help keep each line afloat.
  • Trawls are open nets that sit on the ocean floor. They’re attached to headropes and footropes to keep them open and allow fishing boats to draw them back up to collect their catch.

Besides fishing gear, floating plastic waste can entrap marine wildlife. Plastic bags are especially problematic, but other types of waste can accumulate where animals swim and become stuck. It’s less often the case with whales, but they may get caught in abandoned fishing nets that have also collected plastic waste.

How Can We Stop the Entanglement of Whales?

NOAA has developed a tool providing fisheries with ecosystem information to help lower entanglement risks. Nonprofit agencies involved in reducing whale entanglements include Save the Whales, Marine Life Studies, and the Pacific Whale Foundation. New fishing equipment designs, including ropeless gear, can minimize or avoid more entanglements. Regular aerial surveys and whale-watching operations contribute valuable information. Scientists can tag and track individual animals, while electronic tools such as Global Fishing Watch can locate fishing traps. 

Marine life entanglement is a significant problem, threatening hundreds of species worldwide. Raising awareness is vital. We can also reduce plastic waste and support government and nonprofit groups working on the issue, making our planet’s waters safer for the creatures calling them home. You can enjoy the wonder of watching humpback, gray, blue, and other great whale species aboard a yacht tour by Next Level Sailing.