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Vol. 3, No. 3

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Whale disentanglement (cont'd)

Scientists suspect that, as right whales swim with their large mouths open to catch tiny marine animals, buoy lines and netting catch in the whale's baleen --- a sieve of bristly, stiff plates that hangs from the upper jaw. As the whale tries to free itself by rolling or twisting, the gear can wrap around its body, flippers, or tail, subsequently snagging on other parts of the body and on additional gear.

At a workshop for fishermen in North Head, Grand Manan, New Brunswick, Ed Lyman (right) of the Center for Coastal Studies demonstrates tools used to cut fishing gear off of entangled whales.Whales often can free themselves, and even gear that stays on a whale usually will not kill the animal immediately. But the gear can hinder the whale's ability to swim and to feed, and the whale can eventually starve, suffocate, or die from infection of continually irritated wounds. About two-thirds of known North Atlantic right whales and humpback whales have scars indicating that they have been entangled in fishing gear.

ECE's new Whale Emergency Network recently began responding to entangled whales in the Bay of Fundy with assistance from the Canadian Coast Guard. At right whale disentanglement training workshops this summer organized by ECE with funds from Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), ECE started recruiting fishermen and other mariners to participate in the network.

Whale rescue teams attach special cutting tools to long extension poles so that they can reach fishing gear on an entangled whale from an inflatable raft. (From left) Todd Sollows, Ed Lyman and Stormy Mayo used the specialized tools during a June 5 disentanglement in the Bay of Fundy.The new Canadian Whale Emergency Network and the New England Whale Disentanglement Network coordinated by the Center for Coastal Studies (CCS), a research organization based in Provincetown, Massachusetts, are collectively increasing right whale rescue coverage, approaches are not identical.

CCS Senior Scientists Charles "Stormy" Mayo and David Mattila began disentangling whales about 15 years ago. The center now organizes whale rescues on the US Atlantic coast under authorization from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) which also funds the work with assistance from the US Coast Guard and state marine patrols. In numerous workshops, CCS and NMFS have trained fishermen and Coast Guard crews to respond to entangled whales.

Population struggling

Though all species of whales in the Gulf can become entangled in fishing gear, endangered North Atlantic right whales are of most concern because of their extreme scarcity. Nearly decimated by hunting in past generations, fewer than 350 North Atlantic right whales exist today, according to scientists.

A fully-grown right whale can measure up to 55 feet long and looks indestructibly sturdy with its broad, black body, short, paddle-shaped flippers, and large head. But the species is not reproducing at a fast enough rate to compensate for the many persisting threats to its survival, including collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing gear.

"The right whale is now the rarest whale in the world," Mattila told Coast Guard staff at a disentanglement workshop in Gloucester, Massachusetts in May. "If we can eliminate the human-caused fatalities, they may stand a chance. If not, they will probably be extinct in about a hundred years."

Appealing to fishermen

The US Marine Mammal Protection Act requires that NMFS reduce human-caused right whale deaths. One more right whale death from fishing gear entanglement in US waters could force closures of fishing areas at a time when the industry is already under pressure. Canadian fishermen say they also fear closures if conflicts between right whales and fishing gear continue.

US fishermen are collaborating with NMFS to try to modify fishing gear to make it less dangerous to whales while remaining functional for fishing. According to Moira Brown, founder of ECE and a Senior Scientist at CCS, there is no formal gear modification research under way in Canada.

Until entanglements can be prevented, rescue networks will remain necessary, say organizers, who describe fishermen as integral to these efforts. They are appealing to fishermen's self-interest, as well as engaging what they see as fishermen's affinity for whales and a desire to help. It was a fisherman who counseled CCS on how to release a whale from fishing gear when the organization was first called to help an entangled whale in the early 1980s, according to Mattila.

"Fishermen have got to be made aware that they're part of the solution and not part of the problem," said fisherman and whale watch tour operator Dana Russell at ECE's June 6 workshop in North Head, Grand Manan, New Brunswick. "I have a good feeling from everything that's been said this morning that things are going in the right direction."

Eyes on the water

Close to 400 fishermen and US and Canadian Coast Guard crews have been trained in identifying, reporting, and standing by an entangled whale until help arrives. "The real key," said Brown at the Grand Manan session, "Is to get eyes on the water." Network organizers emphasize that they can't rescue whales they can't find. Informational materials that include contact information for reporting entangled right whales are available for Canadian and US mariners (see "Right whale resources").

"We're not expecting you to leave today prepared to go out and disentangle a whale," said Tobin. But CCS and ECE are allowed by their respective federal fisheries agencies to authorize others to approach whales to remove gear or attach tracking devices. With this in mind, the Canadian and US workshops have included demonstrations of the disentanglement gear much of which is similar to gear fishermen use in their own work and of the telemetry equipment.

CCS Maine Project Director Bob Bowman asserted that in most cases, it is best to wait for a trained disentanglement team. "If [the whale] can breathe, chances are they'll be fine until we can get there," he told Coast Guard staff at the Gloucester workshop.

Bowman, who has released whales from fishing gear, said disentanglements, especially by inexperienced people, are potentially dangerous for whales and humans alike. Removing gear improperly such as leaving some gear still in the whale's mouth may do the animal more harm than good. And getting into the water with a whale is especially dangerous. Even experts should avoid it, he said. Whales do not recognize that they are being helped and are not inclined to cooperate.

But the Canadian network is encouraging fishermen to participate in all aspects of whale rescues from spotting entangled whales to removing gear from the animals. Tobin maintains that, "In some cases, it's appropriate for fishermen to be involved" in disentangling a whale.

High tech and old methods

Bob Bowman, of the Center for Coastal Studies, developed a custom buoy system in which a satelletie tracking mechanism is enclosed in the shaft of a heavy duty buoy that can be attached to fishing gear on an entangled whale. The device enables a disentanglement team to track and relocate the animal if they are unable to release it from the gear on the first attempt.Because bad weather, poor visibility, or other conditions can prevent a disentanglement team from approaching or working on an entangled whale, they will sometimes attach transmitters to the animal to track its whereabouts, returning to the whale when conditions improve. Instruments used include VHF (very high frequency) radio transmitters, and a satellite tracking mechanism enclosed in a rugged custom buoy system, developed by Bowman, that can withstand a whale's deep dives. About 40 fishermen, mostly in the US, have been trained to attach radio tracking devices to entangled whales.

Some of the tools used in disentangling whales are similar to ones used by fishermen.Caches of the gear, including motorized inflatable rafts, fuel, floats, safety gear, cutting tools, and extension poles, are stored in Westport, Nova Scotia; in Somesville, Maine; in Provincetown, Massachusetts; and in locations on the southeast US coast. The gear is packed in containers and kept in small trailers so it can be transported quickly, often by Coast Guard crews who frequently receive the first reports of entangled whales. Ten first response kits containing some tools are also stationed at various sites along the US east coast.

Before attempting to cut gear off of a whale, rescuers will first try to immobilize it using a process called "kegging" developed by whalers to slow an animal so they could harpoon it. Whale rescuers attach floats and buoys to an entangled whale to create drag in the water, tiring the animal so it will stop swimming.

In response to a question from a Grand Manan fisherman, Mayo acknowledged that kegging is also potentially dangerous to the whale. But, he pointed out, the entire disentanglement process is a series of choices about which risk is worst. "It's like a lot of things at sea. You're weighing a bunch of things and you're hoping you make the right decision."

What do you think?

What should be done to prevent whales from becoming entangled in fishing gear in the Gulf of Maine?

Join the Gulf of Maine Council online forum.

Right whale resources

East Coast Ecosystems Web site

Center for Coastal Studies Web site

Gulf of Maine Council Web site

Right Whales and the Prudent Mariner
This 15-minute video describes how to avoid collisions with right whales. Call Massachusetts Coastal Zone Management at (617) 626-1212.

Whales and Fishermen: A Plan for Reducing Entanglements
This 11-minute video describes how to avoid harming whales and how to participate in the Right Whale Sighting Advisory System that alerts mariners to the presence of the whales. Visit or call Maine Sea Grant at (207) 581-1435 or New Hampshire Sea Grant at (603) 749-1565.

Whale Emergency Network wheelhouse card
Includes large whale identification illustrations, instructions for reporting an entangled or dead whale, and contact information for the Whale Emergency Network and the Canadian Coast Guard. Contact the Whale Emergency Network at 1-888-854-4440 from Canada or at (902) 839-2962 from the US.

Right Whales: Guide for Mariners
Laminated wheelhouse card describes precautionary measures captains can take to avoid collisions with North Atlantic right whales and how to contact the US Coast Guard. Call Massachusetts Coastal Zone Management at (617) 626-1212 or call the US Coast Guard Marine Safety Office at (207) 780-3251.