PORTLAND, Maine — The number of whales entangled in fishing gear has recently declined, but entanglements remain a critical threat to rare species, the federal government said in a report released Tuesday.
There have been 53 confirmed cases of large whales entangled in gear in the United States in 2020, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Tuesday. This is down 25% from the previous year and below the 13-year average, the agency said.
Entanglement in fishing gear is one of the two biggest threats to declining whale species, especially North Atlantic right whales, of which there are fewer than 340 worldwide. The other threat is ship strikes.
All coastal regions except Alaska have seen a decrease in whale entanglements, NOAA said. The agency said more research is needed to determine the cause of the decline in entanglements, and it’s possible that the disruption of fishing activities and data reporting by the COVID-19 pandemic played a role. .
It’s also possible that factors unrelated to the pandemic played a role, as “some regions have reported large-scale environmental changes, such as marine heat waves, which may also affect entanglement rates and great whales,” the agency said in the report.
More than half of the entangled whales were humpback whales, which are popular with whale watchers and have a relatively stable global population. However, four of the whales were North Atlantic right whales, which are in the midst of a population decline due to recent years of high mortality and low reproduction.
Right whales give birth off Florida and Georgia and migrate north to waters off New England and Canada to feed. Scientists and conservationists have sounded the alarm in recent years that warming waters appear to be driving whales away from protected areas of the ocean in search of food.
The current level of entanglements is more than the whales can handle, said Kristen Monsell, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group. The group and others have pushed for tighter restrictions on commercial fishing to prevent the whales from becoming entangled.
“These reports show that far too many endangered whales are caught in fishing gear, particularly because the reported entanglements are just the tip of the iceberg,” Monsell said.