An unusually large number of whales dining in areas off the West Coast also prized by the fishing industry is contributing to an alarming surge in the number of cetaceans entangled in crabbing gear.

Environmental groups are urging state fisheries managers to implement immediate reforms to protect whales from injury and death. Crabbers welcome collaborative efforts to reduce entanglements, but some suggest environmentalists are using the problem as leverage to stop the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from removing humpback whales from the endangered species list.

"There are a couple of things going on here, and they've become political," Jennifer Renzullo, a research biologist at UC Davis, said in an interview. "For some reason, perhaps because of unusual conditions at sea, humpback and gray whales that tend to migrate through the areas such as Monterey Bay have been spending more time there. Coincidentally, the crab population was healthiest there this year, in terms of harvesting.

"More fishing pressure," she added, "combined with more whales hanging out in the area are contributing to a spike in entanglements."

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