California Takes the Lead in Regulating Ropeless Fishing

Entanglement in fishing gear is the leading cause of death for marine mammals worldwide.

Entangled humpback whale tail

Fishing lines and gear wound tightly around a humpback whale’s tail, eroding its skin and anchoring the whale in place. The whale was successfully freed in Monterey Bay in May last year.


NOAA Fisheries/West Coast Large Whale Entanglement Response Program. NOAA Fisheries MMHSRP Permit #18786-04

NRDC has weighed in on new regulations proposed by the state of California to protect endangered wildlife from becoming entangled in commercial Dungeness crab fishing gear.

Entanglement in fishing gear is the leading cause of death for marine mammals worldwide. In the United States, entanglement in commercial pot and trap gear used to fish for lobster and crab is seriously impacting large whales, perhaps our most iconic marine species. Off the west coast, the number of deaths of humpback whales caused by entanglements are now high enough for the population to slip into decline. Other endangered ocean giants are also at risk, including blue whales and the Pacific leatherback sea turtle. Off the east coast, entanglements are driving the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale to extinction

The new regulations proposed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife are an important step towards protecting marine species from entanglement. Importantly, the regulations are the first in the country to specifically include provisions that enable “alternative gear” innovations, including “ropeless” gear (also known as “pop-up” gear), to be used for commercial fishing. Ropeless gear is the only reliable means to eliminate entanglement risk while keeping fishers on the water. By explicitly regulating ropeless gear—for example, by enabling its use within fishery closures—California is allowing for significant headway to be made in the research and development of this technology.  Any progress on this front will help  the technology move more rapidly  towards wide-scale commercial use. 

While the proposed regulations show great promise, NRDC joined more than thirty other environmental groups in calling on the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to make the following further improvements:

  1. In order to be authorized as an allowable alternative gear, we noted that the gear cannot include lines that could entangle whales and sea turtles (i.e., must not use vertical lines), except during active retrieval of gear (essentially, it must be ropeless gear).
  2. We recommended new language that would help clarify the process by which the Director of CDFW approves the use of alternative gear, including ropeless gear, based on a set of objective and transparent criteria.
  3. We requested that the use of authorized alternative gear (including ropeless gear) be allowed at any time during the Dungeness crab fishing season (November 15 to July 15), and particularly during November and December delays to the start of the fishing season due to entanglement risk, when the ability to fish with alternative gear could offer substantial economic benefits.

We also acknowledged the fishery’s significant economic challenges in recent years, including toxic domoic acid caused by harmful algal blooms, trade barriers and COVID-19, and expressed sympathy for the unfortunate gear loss in the recent fire at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. Alternative gear cannot solve all these problems but can increase the predictability of the season by ensuring compliance with state regulations and federal laws. Ropeless gear offers one tool that the state can use to improve the fishery’s resilience in these challenging times.

California’s proposed regulations serves as an important signal that ropeless gear is a viable solution to end entanglements. The federal government should follow California’s lead and take similar steps to protect the North Atlantic right whale. The delayed draft federal regulations for North Atlantic right whales do not currently require or enable the use of ropeless gear.

Ropeless fishing systems

There are a number of ropeless fishing solutions that could help eliminate whale entanglements for good.

Credit: Jessica Russo/NRDC

In another recent accomplishment for California, the Ocean Protection Council (OPC) adopted a strategic plan which includes statewide goals of reducing marine mammal entanglements in 2020. With this overarching goal in mind, the OPC disbursed $2.9 million dollars in funding for projects to Reduce the Risk of Whale and Sea Turtle Entanglement in Fishing Gear. This disbursement of funds included awarding up to $500,000 to the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation to support gear innovations testing within the Dungeness crab fishery.

With the regulations proposed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and significant funding disbursement by OPC for further testing of gear innovations and specifically ropeless gear systems, California is poised to become a leader in protecting our marine species from entanglement in fishing gear.  

We look forward to reporting back on how the California Department of Fish and Wildlife takes on our recommendations. Hopefully the state will seize the opportunity to take every measure to protect California’s great whales from entanglement and serve as a model for the rest of the nation.

If you see an entangled whale off California’s coast, call (877) SOS-WHALE (877–767–9425) or hail the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF CH-16.

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