The morning fog in Moss Landing is still thick when Peggy Stap and her volunteer whale rescue crew load up their GPS-equipped buoys, flying knives and repurposed lacrosse helmets.
It’s just after 9 a.m. on this Tuesday morning when Stap steers her 40-foot boat into the harbor. Her 13-year-old rescue dog, a local social media celebrity known as “Whiskie the Whale Spotter,” shares the captain’s seat. After a quick safety check—calm water, good weather—Stap relays the latest radio chatter to her small team of researchers, photographers and curious visitors.
“Tim’s got a gray whale that doesn’t look healthy,” Stap says. She revs the engine and heads for the open waters of the Monterey Bay.
Following up on vague reports from whale-watching boats, fishermen and park rangers has become a near-daily routine for the 63-year-old Michigan transplant. As founding director of the nonprofit research and rescue group Marine Life Studies, Stap has carved out a niche as the Monterey Bay’s go-to first responder for injured whales.
Lately, that means helping to cut loose more and more of the 60,000-pound animals who get caught in crab lines, fishing nets and other ocean hazards. It’s a task that has grown increasingly daunting since 2006, when Stap and Mary Whitney of Carmel’s Fluke Foundation started an early version of the Whale Entanglement Team (WET) that now struggles to keep pace with calls about animals in distress.
“We’ve had three entanglements just in the past couple of weeks,” says Laura Kasa, former director of Save Our Shores and a consultant to the recently formed Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Foundation. She says the new organization is prioritizing fundraising for entanglement to ensure rescue crews have necessary supplies.
“The sad thing is they die such a slow, painful death. They can carry this gear for six months to a year,” Kasa says.
Statistics from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) show a quickly evolving picture for entanglement. From 2000 to 2013, California averaged 10 reports of entangled whales per year. In 2015, there were 25 reports of entangled whales in Northern California alone—21 of those in the Monterey Bay—marking the highest tally since record-keeping began in 1982. In 2016, the number of reports climbed again, to 23 whales in the Monterey Bay alone. Last year saw 26 reported entanglements throughout California, still well above the historical average, according to NOAA data.
Not all of the entangled whales reported in the Monterey Bay actually originate there, though.
“We’re the whale watching capital of the world, so there are more eyes on the water,” Stap said. She’s seen animals drag lines to the Central Coast from fisheries in Fort Bragg or farther.
Explaining the science behind the increase in entanglements is also more complicated than keeping a closer eye on fishing lines, according to the researchers, nonprofits and fishermen watching the water. Whales entangled in pursuit of shifting food stocks illustrate a convergence of evolving ocean biology with big implications not just for wildlife, but also a regional economy built on a reliable supply of valuable seafood.
“If the world continues to get warmer, things are going to shift,” says Francisco Chavez, senior scientist and biological oceanographer with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. “The species that are in Monterey Bay will be in Oregon, and the species that are in Point Conception will be in Monterey Bay.”
That doesn’t mean wildlife in the Bay will disappear, Chavez is quick to point out. What it might mean is major uncertainty about the ecological future of the Monterey Bay, perhaps with unexpected side effects like the surge in whale entanglements.
“We should expect more surprises,” Chavez says. “I don’t know if entanglements will be the next big thing or if it will be something else.”
For Calder Deyerle, a Moss Landing fisherman whose family owns and operates Sea Harvest Fish Market and Restaurant, the biggest challenge is working with researchers and environmental groups to understand the problem in the context of an ever-evolving marine environment.
“What it really comes down to is a whole lot of really smart people don’t really know a whole lot,” Deyerle says.
Feeling the heat
By mid-morning on her recent Tuesday expedition, Stap is losing faith that her crew will be able to locate the injured gray whale reported the night before. A few seemingly healthy humpback whales and white, squid-eating Risso’s dolphins surface, but most sightings are of another kind.
“First one, species was balloon,” Stap tells a volunteer who is recording each identification. “This one, species is plastic.” By the end of the day, the Marine Life Studies boat will collect 47 Mylar balloons, many marking the recent Mother’s Day holiday. Pollution is one of many variables that complicates the mission of Stap’s team and others working to minimize wildlife run-ins.
Chavez, who has studied the Monterey Bay for three decades, says the exact biological changes attributable to human activity remain impossible to pinpoint. Still, he says, the ecosystem “changed in a way we hadn’t seen” after 1997.
Among the most acute shifts are periodic temperature changes—beyond the normal cycle of warmer El Niño water—that impact the “upwelling system” cycling feedstocks through the Monterey Bay. In 2015, both researchers and fishermen say that the altered temperature resulted in fewer krill in deeper water, pushing whales to follow anchovies closer to shore.
“The buzzword these days is ‘marine heatwaves,’” Chavez says, noting similarly anomalous years around 1940 and 1997. “The habitat shrinks. Man meets whale. This recent event was just much more prolonged.”
Day to day, Deyerle says, fishermen were left to contend with a sudden influx of whales during 2015 near long-established coastal fishing and crabbing spots. The resulting accidents were a shock to the system.
“I never even really worried or considered whale entanglements to be an issue,” Deyerle said. “That year really forced it into everybody’s lap.”
The sheer number of whales in and around the Monterey Bay is another major factor in changing interactions with the ocean giants. The population of humpback whales on the West Coast has rebounded from 1,200 before whaling restrictions in the late 1960s to more than 18,000 today.
In the meantime, Deyerle says, fisherman are also juggling limitations on the region’s famous Dungeness crab—both natural fluctuations in population, and regulations on crabbing season and the types of crabs it is permissible to catch in the Bay. As of 2012, federal data shows that commercial fishing was a $30 million business in the Monterey Bay, including almost $9.5 million in revenue from Dungeness crab.
“You spend more money on fuel and bait and time and gear than you’re making,” Deyerle says of the predicament fisheries have faced in recent years.
As the Central Coast economy diversifies with increased investment in tourism, advanced agriculture and attracting high tech companies, Deyerle says he is among the fishermen hedging his bets. He’s now casting longlines for sablefish, no longer relying as heavily on crab.
Looking ahead, Chavez says staying in business could require even more significant adjustments if water temperatures continue to climb.
“The things that we normally see during these warm events are tuna and things of that nature. Things people like to eat. It’s not all gloom and doom,” Chavez says. “The thing is, it’s kind of hard to prepare for the local fishermen. The bigger fleets will do better than the small mom and pops.”
Before she decided to spend her retirement tracking down injured whales along the coast from Davenport to Big Sur, Stap spent two decades studying whales in Hawaii and California. The former retail sales director and landscape architect moved from the Midwest to be in the Monterey Bay area full time in 2010.
After more than a decade on the entanglement beat, Stap knows when to stop and regroup. By late morning on her recent patrol, she calls off the search for the injured gray whale—an example of the difficulty of tracking a gigantic moving target, since people who report entangled whales are often unable to stand by and keep an eye on the animal until Stap arrives.
“We could do this all day and not find it,” Stap says. In one case, she remembers, it took 17 days to find a whale reported entangled in the Monterey Bay—which was eventually discovered in Santa Barbara.
If a search does prove successful, WET’s team of volunteers and one part-time assistant are ready. First, they call NOAA for permission to approach the whale. When that is granted, a team departs on a smaller boat to get closer. The first objective is to attach a telemetry buoy equipped with a satellite tracker to make it easier to monitor the whale’s location.
From there, protocol dictates that a NOAA-certified “level four” responder should do the actual cutting. Since the closest level four to Santa Cruz is 100 miles away in Benicia, that can leave the WET crew to monitor whales for several hours.
Getting a local certified to perform disentanglements on shorter notice is one long-term goal, Stap said. Marine Life Studies also photographs whale flukes and dorsal fins, which are sent to Washington’s Cascadia Research and logged in a database tracking whale migration patterns.
Fundraising for specialized equipment is one recurring challenge. Marine Life is currently raising $10,000 for a new cut boat. Then, there are dozens of smaller tools, like navigation devices and a $500 “whale rescue blade”—rounded at the tip to avoid cutting the animal, but sharp enough to cut thick lines “like butter,” Stap says.
In the coming months, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Foundation hopes to raise $50,000 from area residents and businesses to fund Stap’s group and additional NOAA boats that could be mobilized to help despite shrinking federal conservation funding. Those funds would be matched by the Monterey Bay Peninsula Foundation.
To better understand one of the primary causes of entanglement, Deyerle and Stap are both part of a three-year-old California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group convened by the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. The group is currently focused on collecting data and applying ocean biology to whale migration as part of an ongoing Risk Assessment and Mitigation Program (RAMP). Deyerle says he and other fisherman are also exploring alternative line materials and other animal-safe technologies, though such tools can be cost-prohibitive or not yet proven for regular use.
Still, some environmental groups have grown impatient. Last year, after quitting the crab working group, the Center for Biological Diversity sued the state for failing to address the problem. The group blamed the state for enforcing “virtually no restrictions on the fishermen,” according to an October 2017 report in the East Bay Express.
Deyerle says local fisheries are already subject to more regulation than counterparts in other parts of the country. Stap and others also contend that working with the Central Coast’s multimillion-dollar commercial fishing industry is the most pragmatic approach.
“There’s nobody out there that wants to catch a whale,” says Heather Willis, a Pacifica-based volunteer with the nonprofit California Whale Rescue, which helps coordinate entanglement responses. “That sucks, to lose thousands of dollars worth of equipment.”
Day to day, Stap is left to man the front line of a rapidly-changing environment. On this one, even with the sun shining on an unusually serene bay, the gray whale never surfaces.
A few days later, though, a humpback trailing a 70-foot line with white and yellow buoys is spotted in Big Sur. Stap says her group is on standby, with a team ready to respond.
Kasa says what the whale rescue effort needs is more reliable funding for better equipment and more manpower. Of the 26 entangled whales reported in California last year, just three were fully released from gear by response teams. Five whales were partially disentangled and one appeared to free itself, leaving 20 cases with unknown outcomes.
“This is just a Band-Aid,” Kasa says. “We really have to figure out how we can fund the research piece.”