Fisherman Jake Bunch leans over the side of the fishing boat “Sadie K,” spears his catch, and reels it aboard: an abandoned crab pot, dangling one limp lasagna noodle of kelp and dozens of feet of rope, just the kind of fishing gear that has been snaring an increasing number of whales off U.S. coasts.
Confirmed counts of humpbacks, blue and other endangered or threatened species of whale entangled by the ropes, buoys and anchors of fishing gear hit a record 50 on the East Coast last year, and tied the record on the West Coast at 48, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The accidental entanglements can gouge whales’ flesh and mouth, weaken the animals, drown them, or kill them painfully, over months.
This year, Bunch is one of small number of commercial fishermen out of Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco, and five other ports up and down California who headed to sea again after the West Coast’s Dungeness crab season ended this summer.
The California fishermen are part of a new effort using their cellphones’ GPS and new software pinpointing areas where lost or abandoned crabbing gear has been spotted. They retrieve the gear for a payment — at Half Moon Bay, it’s $65 per pot —before the fishing ropes can snag a whale.
Especially stormy weather this year has meant more wayward crabbing gear than usual, Bunch said recently on a gray late-summer morning at sea.
“Makes it all the more important to pick it up,” he says.