Federal grant funds whale conservation research

NEWPORT — Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden announced Friday that $26,205 had been awarded the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife for whale conservation research efforts — but that’s only the first installment of an NOAA grant that totals $278,856.

“Oregon’s breathtaking coast makes countless contributions to the spirit of our state and the vitality of our local economies,” said Merkley. “This funding is critical to maintaining the health of our waters, while ensuring that Oregon’s fishing industry can support families in coastal communities for generations to come.”

The research in question is being conducted through a partnership between many parties on the Oregon coast, including Sea Grant, ODFW, the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission, the United States Coast Guard and the Oregon Whale Entanglement Working Group.

Reports of whales being entangled in crab fishing gear have become more and more common on the West coast; 2014-2016 were three years which all set new records for deaths of humpback, gray and blue whales off the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington. In 2017, the Oregon Whale Entanglement Working Group formed to develop options to reduce entanglement — however, more information is needed to do so, and so the research began.

Leigh Torres of Oregon Sea Grant serves as the lead researcher on the project. She and her team have been working with the Coast Guard’s two helicopter divisions to conduct repeat surveys along the Oregon Coast four times a month for the past two years. Additional information has been gathered through participating in research cruises and the utilization of citizen scientists.

Using that data, the researchers aim to build predictive models of when whales will be where, and compare them to records of where deploy fishing gear — this will determine areas of high and low entanglement risk.

Previously, this research has been funded by the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission, but it will now carry on with the support of the NOAA grant.

“Oregon has a proud history of conservation, and fishing is the lifeblood of our coastal communities economies,” Wyden said. “This important investment is a win-win on both fronts, protecting threatened whales and ensuring Oregon’s fisheries continue to thrive.”