Retrospective analysis of measures to reduce large whale entanglements in a lucrative commercial fishery
Marine mammal bycatch is a significant anthropogenic threat to recovering populations. Gear reduction in Washington (USA) crab fishery decreased entanglement risk to whales.
Recovering marine animal populations and climate-driven shifts in their distributions are colliding with growing ocean use by humans. One such example is the bycatch of whales in commercial fishing, which poses a significant threat to the conservation and continued recovery of these protected animals and is a major barrier to sustainable fisheries. Long-lasting solutions to this problem need to be robust to variability in ecological dynamics while also addressing socio-cultural and economic concerns. We assessed the efficacy of gear reductions as an entanglement mitigation strategy during 2019 and 2020 in the highly valuable Dungeness crab fishery (Washington State, USA) in terms of changes in the entanglement risk to protected blue and humpback whales, and in terms of economic consequences for the fishery. Using a combination of fishery logbooks, landings data, and whale habitat models, we found that in the two seasons with mandatory crab pot reductions, entanglement risk was reduced by up to 20 % for blue whales, and 78 % for humpback whales, compared to seasons with no regulations. Spatio-temporal variability in the distribution of each whale species was a key factor in determining risk. Importantly, the conservation measure did not have a substantial negative effect on fleet-level fishery performance metrics, despite a reduction in fishing effort. Results indicated that a simple, fixed management strategy achieved the desired conservation goals in an economically sustainable way. Our findings underscore the value of carefully considering the dynamic nature of species' spatial distributions and key social and economic impacts that together determine conservation efficacy.