LONG BEACH, California (AP) -- An unusual warming in the Pacific Ocean may be having disastrous consequences for the majestic whales that use the waters off California as a migratory super-highway.
This year alone, more than 60 whales entangled in fishing gear have been spotted along the coast -- a more than 400 percent spike over normal and a pattern that began in 2014. Scientists believe the whales may be following prey closer to shore as warm water influences feeding patterns, putting them on a collision course with fishermen, crabbers and lobstermen.
The situation is so dire that the crab fishery has begun working closely with state and federal agencies and environmental groups to figure out where and how the whales are running into their gear. The ocean mammals also have become entangled in gill nets and lobster gear, but authorities have identified the crab fishery as the most urgent concern.
"This time of year, the whales would be offshore but with the blob of warm water, they're right off the beach. They're right where the crabs are," said Jim Anderson, a crabber who's helping to mobilize the state's 562 licensed Dungeness crab fishermen. "You go talk to a guy who's been fishing for 40 or 50 years and he's never seen anything like it."
Whales that have rope stuck in their mouths or wrapped tightly around their fins or tail will eventually die if they can't free themselves. Highly trained volunteer rescue teams are only able to disentangle a small percentage despite tracking devices that allow them to follow the hobbled animals for miles. Many swim away and their fate is never known.
Keith Yip, who volunteers as the leader of a disentanglement team sponsored by SeaWorld, has been called out four times in the past six weeks and has logged 10 rescues in the past two years -- one-fifth of all the calls he's had in a 30-year career.
"It's another job in and of itself recently," said Yip, who is the curator of mammals at SeaWorld. "My weekend days alone just the past couple of weeks I've spent on the water."
Rather than crack down on the Dungeness crab fishery, which can bring in up to $100 million a season, state and federal agencies decided to tap into the crabbers' collective knowledge to figure out where wayward whales and fishermen are overlapping. The crab season is delayed this year because of a massive bloom of toxic algae in the Pacific, but crabbers are committed to help when the season does resume later this winter or next year.
At a training session this fall in Half Moon Bay, nearly 100 crabbers already learned how to photograph tangled whales, call them in to a hotline and then "babysit" them until authorities arrive.
Associated Press Writer Julie Watson in San Diego contributed to this report.
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