The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports 76 confirmed cases of large whale entanglements in US waters in 2017. Given the fact that whales can become entangled in areas far from shore, the actual entanglement number is likely far higher. In an interview with the Monterey Herald, NOAA’s Justin Greenman called the increase in whale entanglements “the new normal.”
Entangled cetaceans can suffer life-threatening injuries, including skin abrasions, broken bones, punctured or collapsed lungs, and even tail or flipper amputations. An entangled whale can trail fishing gear for weeks or even months, leading to a slow and agonizing death by starvation or predation.
The International Whaling Commission estimates that, globally, some 800 whales, dolphins, and porpoises are trapped in fishing gear each day. Among the most frequently entangled large whale species are the humpback whale, gray whale, minke whale, blue whale, and North Atlantic right whale (the latter two endangered). Fifty-two percent of humpback whales in southeast Alaska have been entangled at least once. Eighty-three percent of North Atlantic right whales bear scars or carry ropes indicative of entanglements. There has been a spike in whale entanglements along the US West Coast, from an estimated 31 in 2017 to 45 in 2018, highlighting the urgent need for improved fisheries management to mitigate this growing threat to cetaceans.