BOSTON (CN) – Instances of whales entangled in fishing gear or other plastic debris surpassed the 10-year average last year, according to a new report from federal researchers, but these figures represent a slight decrease from higher numbers in previous years.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released the report Thursday, saying it confirmed 76 whale entanglements. Of that total, six whales were found dead.
The report does not include the other 14 reported entanglements that NOAA could not confirm.
California and Massachusetts lead the nation in reports of whale entanglements, with 25 and 20, respectively.
NOAA broke down the entanglements by region, showing that the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, Alaska, and the West Coast all saw decreases. There was a slight increase off the coast of Hawaii, and no change in the Southeast Atlantic.
Despite the decreases, the total number, 76, was still higher than the 10-year average of 69.5. This is likely the result of an unusual drop in reported cases in 2013.
“There’s a lot of factors that go into play,” NOAA spokeswoman Sarah Wilkins said in press conference Thursday. “It could be truly that fewer whales were entangled. It could also be that more whales were observed in prior years and reported in prior years. And the decrease is not very significant. The numbers go up and down and vary over time.”
Humpback whales were most likely to be entangled, accounting for 49 of the reported 76 cases. Gray whales were the next most likely with 11 reported entanglements.
NOAA considers its data a “conservative estimate,” and said some of the reported whales may have become entangled outside of United States because they would have been able to travel long distances even after becoming entangled due to their large size.
“Large whales are powerful and mobile and they can tow gear for long, long distances,” Wilkins said.
The entanglement report is just part of NOAA’s mission to ensure the survival of protected species, such as those on the endangered list.
“Entanglement in fishing gear or marine debris is a very serious conservation and welfare issue,” Wilkins said. “It can kill or injure large whales. Entanglements that involve endangered species can have very serious population effects.”