Number of whales caught in fishing line higher than previous years

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Experts weigh in on why so many whales are being found entangled in fishing nets along the southern coasts of California. (KABC)

A 40-foot humpback whale first spotted last week off the coast of Newport Beach became entangled in hundreds of feet of fishing line.

After two days and numerous attempts, rescuers freed the whale from two sets of lines connected to Dungeness Crab pots from Oregon. It was likely fishing gear that had broken away, with one line going back to the 2011 season, according to Justin Viezbicke with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Since January, the NOAA said about 50 entangled whales have been rescued, which is about four times higher than previous years. Twelve whales on average are found entangled in fishing line each year.

They're mostly humpbacks, Viezbicke said. However, just weeks ago a fin whale near Dana Point needed help, and in September, a blue whale was also found entangled in line off the coast of Palos Verdes.

Whale experts say it's too early to know for sure on the reasoning for the sudden increase in whales along the coast, but warmer water temperatures could play a factor.

"We know that seems to be pushing the prey closer to shore - that could lead to the whales coming in following the prey and overlapping with the fisheries," said Diane Alps, president of the American Cetacean Society, the world's oldest whale conservation organization.

More boats on the water and more people trained to identify a distressed whale could also mean more people are reporting entangled mammals, Alps added.

"Most of this gear isn't from California," said Rodger Healy, president of the California Lobster and Trap Fisherman's Association, referring to the rope found on entangled whales.

Healy said the lobster industry often unfairly gets blamed when there's a whale in trouble. But he said in California, lobster fisherman use short lines, or small buoys, and they fish close to the beach.

"(We fish) right in the rocks and the tide pools and along the kelp forest where the whales generally aren't migrating," he said.

NOAA officials said most of the whales rescued were caught in lines connected to crab pots.

"Crab fishing, unfortunately, takes place further off shore than lobster fishing and how and why they get entangled with it, I don't know," Healy said.

"I think it's important not to make out any particular fishery as a villain," Alps said. "(Fishermen) feel this is equally as tragic to see the loss of a large whale."

Officials with NOAA said they're working with fisheries to find a solution, but they too are trying to figure out how and why whales are getting entangled in the first place.
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