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Nearly 40 reports of whales entangled in fishing gear have been recorded off the US west coast in 2016 — including at least 20 whales that are estimated to still be entangled — putting this year on pace to break the record for the third straight year, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

Although some whales are able to escape from fishing gear, often with the help of California Whale Rescue teams, those that continue to drag fishing gear can die slow, painful deaths.

In response to the latest figures, the Center for Biological Diversity called on Dungeness crab fishermen to heed last month’s voluntary advisory and remove more fishing lines from Monterey Bay and other entanglement hot spots where whales, including endangered humpback and blue whales, are now feeding – despite a united effort by the California crab fleet to remove much of their gear already.

The Center also urged regulators to take swift action to address the problem. In addition to whales, one critically endangered leatherback sea turtle was reported entangled, and ultimately disentangled, in the Monterey area in April.

“This has become a crisis. We recognize that crabbers don’t want to harm whales, and now they need to act to avoid important biological areas where whales feed,” said Kristen Monsell, an attorney for the group said in the press release.

There have been at least four new whale entanglements reported since the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) issued its May 24 advisory to crab-vessel permit holders, calling for them to voluntarily reduce the use of trailer buoys and remove gear from Monterey Bay and the shelf edges and canyons where krill and small fish are now abundant.

Anecdotal reports indicate that a significant amount of fishing gear remains in those areas, where some of the new entanglements have been reported.

Dungeness crabbers immediately responded to the May 24 CDFW advisory, with many choosing to shorten their already limited season.

“California’s commercial fishing industry is adopting a suite of emergency actions to minimize the possibility of whale interactions with Dungeness crab gear, including voluntarily standing down from productive crab grounds around the Monterey Submarine Canyon to avoid high concentrations of whales feeding in the area,” according to a May 26 press release from the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and the Alliance of Communities for Sustainable Fisheries (ACSF). “Crabbers are coordinating with state and federal agencies and sharing best fishing practices among themselves to reduce the likelihood that migrating whales become entangled in crab gear.”

Citing an uptick in reports of whale entanglements in and around Monterey Bay, commercial crabbers led by the ACSF called an emergency skipper workshop on May24 to share information and develop a plan to reduce the potential for gear interactions with whales.

The meeting was heavily attended by crabbers from Monterey, Moss Landing and Santa Cruz, the three harbors most active in the Monterey Bay crab fishery. The CDFW was also present to provide data and regulatory information that facilitated the crabbers’ course of action.

Crabbers at the workshop adopted recommendations that included voluntarily reducing fishing effort on the Monterey Canyon rim for the rest of the 2015-16 fishing season.

The Canyon rim is a highly biologically productive area utilized by whales and crabbers alike. Fishermen may move gear to areas with fewer whales, or stop fishing earlier than would be required under state law. The crab season normally ends in the area on June 30.

California Whale Rescue Director Kathi Koontz said there have been 39 unique entanglement reports this year, including 35 since the delayed start of commercial crab season in late March. The National Marine Fisheries Service confirmed 61 reported whale entanglements in 2015 and 30 confirmed in 2014, which was up from an average of eight per year the previous decade and three per year the decade before that.

“This is a perfect storm — there’s a lot of competition among crabbers during this shortened season and lots of whales off our coast because of the warm water. The advisory should work to reduce entanglements, but fishermen are essential to its success,” Monsell said. “We need the crab industry to act with the sense of urgency that this situation deserves.”

Fishermen already have gone beyond this year’s recommendations and are supporting a bill introduced by Sen. Mark McGuire, D-North Coast, to develop a program to remove derelict gear and reduce whale entanglements in the future.

“The recent increase in entanglements is deeply troubling for all involved in this issue,” McGuire said in the press release. “I applaud the fishermen for being proactive with this important first step and we hope to solve this growing challenge once and for all by passing SB 1287, which will create a statewide program to remove old or lost crab gear from the ocean. We have to take these necessary steps to protect whales and keep our ocean clean.”