By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) - Conservationists on Tuesday called for new safeguards for gray whales and humpbacks after a record number of the federally protected mammals got entangled in fishing gear in coastal waters off California, Oregon and Washington.
Figures from federal fisheries managers show 30 of the outsized mammals were reported entangled last year off the U.S. West coast, the largest number in at least the past 15 years, conservationists said. At least two whales died.
Twenty of the 30 were in coastal waters between central and southern California and involved at least a dozen humpbacks entangled in fishing gear, including lines from crab pots or traps.
That compares to an average of eight whale entanglements reported in the state each year, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Twenty-five whales have been reported caught in line so far this year in Californian waters, including a killer whale that washed up dead north of Fort Bragg, in a trend that Earthjustice and other conservation groups said needed "urgent action" by the state, federal officials and commercial fishermen.
Activists said the entanglements, often reported by the throngs who flock to coastal waters to watch whales, could be reduced by measures including a requirement that old, abandoned fishing gear be retrieved.
California Fish and Wildlife, which regulates fishing in the state, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Dan Lawson, biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, said the agency is seeking to "do whatever we need to do to reduce the amount of entanglements."
Lawson said there are no specific plans, but that discussions between regulators and the commercial fishing industry are ongoing.
It is unclear what is causing the number of entangled whales to climb, but contributing factors may include more extensive reporting and an overall increase in the number of whales off the U.S. West Coast, he said.
Rachelle Fisher, administrator of a California task force made up mostly of commercial fishermen, said the industry has sought in recent years to lessen the harm to whales by taking steps such as restricting the amount of gear in the water.
"The industry has shown a willingness to address and minimize these sorts of issues," she said.
U.S. fisheries managers last week proposed stripping most humpback whales of protections under the U.S. Endangered Species Act because most populations no longer are threatened with extinction.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Sandra Maler)