‘Blob’ research shows ecological effects that halted fishing and hiked whale entanglements

Unprecedented environmental changes inspire new online tools to better spot them next time

NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region

Humpback whales feed on anchovy off the Coast of California. New research shows that warm ocean temperatures pushed whales into the same water as crab fishermen, and whale entanglements increased. Credit: John Calambokidis/Cascadia Research Collective
Humpback whales feed on anchovy off the Coast of California. New research shows that warm ocean temperatures pushed whales into the same water as crab fishermen, and whale entanglements increased. Credit: John Calambokidis/Cascadia Research Collective

An ecological pileup of unprecedented changes in the ocean off the West Coast beginning about 2014 led to record entanglements of humpback and other whales, putting the region’s most valuable commercial fishery at risk, new research shows.

The findings reflect a new management challenge brought about by a changing climate, recovering whale populations, and fishing pressure, according to the new research published in Nature Communications. The situation calls for new measures to alert fishermen to the risk of entanglements and help managers adjust to more rapid and frequent changes in the marine environment.

“We need to put information in the hands of those who can use it, at a time when it can make a difference,” said Jarrod Santora, a research scientist at NOAA Fisheries’ Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SWFSC) in Santa Cruz, California, and lead author of the research. “We are seeing changes coming at us in ways they never have before.”

Santora and his colleagues are developing a website that will use oceanographic data to forecast the areas where whales are most likely to be feeding off the West Coast. Crab fishermen could then use the information to help decide where–and where not–to set their traps. It may also help managers decide where and when to open–or close–fishing.

The new research teases out the ecological causes and effects that contributed to the spike in reported whale entanglements. Many involved traps set for Dungeness crab, said Nathan Mantua, a research scientist at the SWFSC and coauthor of the research. Reported entanglements have since dropped off but remain higher than before the increase.

“We had all these things that weren’t part of anyone’s experience come together in this remarkable three-year period,” he said.

Conflict Prompts Improved Communication

The entanglements have also prompted environmental lawsuits that threaten to restrict crab fishing. At the same time, though, the focus on entanglements has led to better communication and conversation between fishermen, environmental groups, and managers. Collaborative working groups have also developed tools to better anticipate and avoid entanglement risk.

“If the working group knew then what we know now, it wouldn’t have happened,” said John Mellor, a crab fisherman from San Francisco, referencing the increased entanglements. “The more we understand the whole picture, the better chance we have to mitigate the impacts.”

The driver behind many of the environmental changes was an unprecedented marine heatwave that took hold in 2014. It became known as “the warm Blob,” because of the large expanse of unusually high temperatures that dominated waters off the West Coast. The warm temperatures attracted subtropical species rarely seen in the region. The krill that humpback whales typically feed on grew scarce.

The whales switched to feed instead on high concentrations of anchovy that the warm, less productive waters had squeezed into a narrow band near the coast.

At the same time, the higher temperatures fueled a record bloom of toxic algae. It shut down crabbing on the West Coast from November 2015 through March 2016. When toxin levels eased and the Dungeness season finally opened, fishermen set multitudes of crab traps in that same narrow band where many whales were feeding.

NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region confirmed a then-record 53 whale entanglements in 2015 and 55 in 2016.

The scientists developed a new measure for ocean conditions called the Habitat Compression Index. It tracks the width of the productive band and how tightly species are coalescing there.

Whale Numbers Reflect Unprecedented Change

Research Biologist Karin Forney, also from the SWFSC and a coauthor of the research, lives in Moss Landing, California. She has a view of Monterey Bay and has long seen occasional humpback whales feeding just offshore. During the “the Blob” years, she would regularly see 30 to 40 whales from her front windows. Local whale watch boats made two to three trips a day to keep up with the demand.

Some 300 whales were counted at once in Monterey Bay.

“In our lifetimes living here, that was unprecedented,” she said. “We knew something dramatically different was pulling these whales closer to shore.”

She is also part of a NOAA team trained to free entangled whales.

“We were on call every day for weeks, with simultaneous reports of two or three entangled whales, so we could respond if they were sighted again,” she said. The team disentangled a few, while others were never seen again.

The lesson of the research, Forney said, is that scientists and fishermen must share information. They can help each other understand how complex environmental connections affect marine species and fisheries. Communication may be one of their most important tools as environmental changes come ever faster.

“Things are dynamic, and things are changing,” she said. “That is not going away.”


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Garland Lowe
January 28, 2020 11:20 pm

Climate is dynamic, which means it is not static and never has been or will be.

Bryan A
Reply to  Garland Lowe
January 29, 2020 12:20 pm

It would appear that the representative sea life…Whales, Anchovies, ets…prefer warmer waters. It is only Man that hasn’t adapted and finds having to do so to be problematic.

January 29, 2020 12:04 am

“unprecedented” made my bullshitometer skyrocket.

Did they even tryed to know the actual number of hunted whales per year in the last two decades (and particularly the last one) before blaming climate change on anything and its opposite ?

Reply to  Petit_Barde
January 29, 2020 1:11 am

There was an unprecedented number of “unprecedenteds” in that article, that’s for sure.

Reply to  Petit_Barde
January 29, 2020 2:58 am

You have to ask what climate change have to do with anything in the article?

Just look at the humpback whale population from 1950 to Now 🙂

Reply to  LdB
January 29, 2020 3:18 am

“The driver behind many of the environmental changes was an unprecedented marine heatwave that took hold in 2014. It became known as “the warm Blob,” because of the large expanse of unusually high temperatures that dominated waters off the West Coast.”

Burl Henry
Reply to  Petit_Barde
January 29, 2020 6:10 am


According to a Jan 21 article in “Environment”, the heat wave was caused by a “ridiculously resilient” high pressure ridge that disrupted weather patterns for years (2013-2016).

Such stalled weather systems will always result in higher temperatures.

Mike Roberts
Reply to  Burl Henry
February 2, 2020 7:14 pm

A global energy imbalance causes a change in global temperature.

Your comment under an earlier post appeared to suggest that SO2 changes (in particular a reduction) were to blame. If that were so, temperature would have been higher before humans started to emit so much SO2. It wasn’t. A reduction in SO2 might well result in a temperature rise over the short term, as more sunlight gets through, but it doesn’t have a long term effect on temperature rise and can’t be used to explain the temperature rise since pre-industrial times.

Burl Henry
Reply to  Mike Roberts
February 3, 2020 7:34 am

Mike Roberts:

The “Blob” was a localized area of higher temperatures, not “a global energy imbalance that caused a change in global temperature”, as you stated.

Temperatures were as high, or higher, during the Medieval Warm Period, than they are today, when there was enough glacial melting to allow Greenland to become arable, which hasn’t happened (as yet). So, temperatures WERE higher before humans began to emit so much SO2.

(The reason for the MWP was a dearth of volcanic eruptions, and consequently very low levels of SO2 in the atmosphere).

The MWP ended because of an increase in volcanic eruptions (many VEI5 and VEI6) that loaded the atmosphere with their dimming SO2 emissions, causing the Little Ice Age.

The LIA ended when the large eruptions abated, and temperatures naturally began to rise toward those of the MWP, and other earlier warm eras, because of the falling SO2 levels.

However, they were largely prevented from doing so because of the SO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels from the Industrial Revolution, which peaked at ~136 Megatons in 1979, ending a period where temperatures had been trending downward.

Since then, global Clean Air efforts (which began in the 1970’s) have resulted in decreased SO2 aerosol levels, falling to ~111 Megatons in 2014 (and an estimated 80 Megatons at this time). This reduction in SO2 levels is actually the cause of the anomalous warming that has occurred since Clean Air efforts began.

So, changing SO2 levels CAN be used to explain the temperature rise since pre-industrial times!

Charles Higley
Reply to  LdB
January 29, 2020 5:37 am

Furthermore, these are warm-blooded mammals and they really do not care about minor changes in ocean temperature. They would be avoiding the Blob warm water as it might not be as productive an area as it is near shore, where upwelling cold water with nutrients mixes with warm, oxygenated surface water, allowing lots of productivity.

Add increasing whale populations and you have fishermen competing with whales, as it should be.

Myopically blaming this on climate change (aka AGW) and ocean warming, of 0.1ºC world wide in the last 100 years, is a joke.

John of Fabius
Reply to  Petit_Barde
January 29, 2020 5:19 am

And the crab fisherman used the phrase “mitigate the impact”. I’ve known a few crabbers over the years. Color me skeptical, though I suppose it could be a SF thing.

Carl Friis-Hansen
January 29, 2020 4:07 am

The article makes sense with regards to information exchange.

Communication is helpful to the fishery.
The “climate change”and “unprecedented” phrases is helpful to state funding.

January 29, 2020 5:37 am

Geez. It has to be unprecedented to get attention and funding. Can’t really be all that unprecedented if the whales were able to adjust their feeding strategy. What the whales probably don’t understand is the mechanics of crab fishing. That’s like animals who are struggling to adjust to roadways.

The basic thought that good science and cooperation with those who gather the resource is laudable. Things I saw out of my window don’t really fit into that very well. As has been pointed out the world is not static. All kinds of things will happen that you’ve never seen out of your window before. Adjust and live on.

January 29, 2020 5:37 am

Lest we forget, whale oil makes good kerosene and other renewable products that can displace fossil fuels, and whale bones and ivory can displace hard plastics.

Reply to  Scissor
January 29, 2020 10:59 am

Call me Ishmael.

Tom Abbott
January 29, 2020 5:41 am

From the article:

“An ecological pileup of unprecedented changes in the ocean off the West Coast beginning about 2014. . .

The findings reflect a new management challenge brought about by a changing climate. . .

“We are seeing changes coming at us in ways they never have before.”

end (unsubstantiated and hyperbolic) excerpts

Obviously, there are trying to portray this event as “unprecedented”, which is absurd. I guess that’s what they get paid for.

The Human-caused Climate Change connection they are implying revolves around “The Blob”, which was essentially a large area of high pressure which hovered over the same location off the coast of California for a prolonged period of time.

Temperatures beneath high pressure systems are warm and they get a lot warmer if that high pressure system sits on top of you for a prolonged period of time. That’s where droughts come from.

So the Blob was a high pressure system that sat over a particular region of the Pacific ocean off the coast of California and warmed the waters underneath it to higher temperatures, which subsequently caused the biological activity to modify its behavior.

But to call this situation unprecedented is ridiculous. This may be a change these particular scientists have never seen before but it certainly has happened in the past.

California has suffered decades-long droughts in the past. How do you suppose that could happen? It could happen if a high pressure system sits off the coast of California for an extended period ot time. In fact, that’s about the only way it could happen.

The Blob lasted just a few years. California droughts have lasted for decades at a time in the past. The Blob is not unprecedented if you know history.

January 29, 2020 6:08 am

Don’t these drongos get that the whales are saved and they’re now crawling all over our coasts breeding like flaming koalas on Kangaroo Island? Furthermore they come close inshore and into estuaries where there’s noisy coastlines in order to breed and calve where the Orcas can’t track their sounds against the background noise. When their increasing numbers press on their food stocks there’s going to be plenty dying of starvation and washing up onshore stinking up our swimming beaches and attracting sharks but that will be climate change again.

Meanwhile signs of life among the black totem poles again but not a day goes by that the doomsters aren’t busy with their dooming-
and they’ll all be rooned by the floods up Qld way now if the Corona Virus doesn’t get them first-
Trust me those children are never going to know what snow looks like because they live above the Tropic of Capricorn.

January 29, 2020 7:37 am

A 0.03C warming caused the whales to change their fishing grounds?

January 29, 2020 8:13 am

If we only new then what we don’t know now.

John Robertson
January 29, 2020 11:21 am

Fossil fuel oil bad.
Whale oil good?
Definitely ecofriendly and biodegradable.
Of course the recovering whale populations have nothing to do with increased entanglement of whales in mans devices.
Why it is “Unprecedented” once again.

Reply to  John Robertson
February 1, 2020 12:32 am

Unprecedented obsession.

Reply to  John Robertson
February 1, 2020 12:42 am

Since I was interested in such things I watched the climate change debate pick up as it became more politically expedient for democrat election efforts. Part of their Party Platform. Important to win back Congress and the Presidency. Yes the two are tied together. It’s good to be wise about this aspect of climate change also. Once again. Not all science; but politics. This article is not much but it does add to the whole. I don’t mind the attention to the whales as much as how nature and science is being exploited, itself.

January 29, 2020 1:22 pm

The picture shows bubble netting, a cooperative activity among humpbacks. They are very smart creatures, intensely interested in people watching, which puts them at some risk. We are right to give them safe passage along the west coast.

January 29, 2020 2:16 pm

Call me Ishmael.

nw sage
January 29, 2020 7:43 pm

I’m puzzled how the ‘researchers’ persuade a humpback – presumable fully grown or nearly so, to stop while the scuba team unwraps the crab pot retrieval line. Are there stop signs the whales watch out for? Surely the whales know we are not there to harm them because someone hollers “nice whale, please stop”.
It sounds like a plan looking for a problem to cause.

January 30, 2020 8:35 am

I hear that the solution for the crab fishermen will be to instrument their traps with some form of electronics that can be located from the surface vessel – no more sea bed to surface ropes/cables, no more entanglements.
If you like crab, enjoy it now as the price will be going up!

February 1, 2020 12:17 am

Whale blubber+ omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D.

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