Thanks to a collaborative effort by trained responders, including a team from The Marine Mammal Center, a juvenile humpback whale was freed from entanglement in fishing gear off the coast of Eureka, California.
November 20, 2018
Humpback whales have patterns of black and white pigmentation and scars on the undersides of their tails, or flukes, that are unique to each individual whale, just as fingerprints are to humans. But when fishermen spotted a young whale with more than just the typical scar patterns, they knew its life was on the line.
Estimated to be about 25 feet long, the juvenile whale was entangled in commercial fisheries gear when it was spotted by the fishing vessel approximately eight miles outside of Eureka, California. Three buoys and a significant amount of line was wrapped around the whale’s tail.
At the end of hundreds of feet of debris- and slime-covered line was fishing gear that was dragging along the seafloor, essentially tethering the whale in place. All told, the fishing gear weighed hundreds of pounds. The whale was in poor body condition, likely fatigued and unable to successfully forage for food.
The entanglement caused the whale to drag the equipment through the water wherever it went, leading to severe and potentially fatal damage as the line cut deeply into the whale’s tail. Without intervention, an entanglement of this severity can lead to eventual amputation of the flukes and even death.
Some populations of humpback whale are listed as threatened or endangered, meaning their survival as a species is at risk. For long-lived animals like these that are slow to mature and slow to reproduce, the loss of just one individual can have a population-level impact.
The fisherman reported the sighting to NOAA’s large whale entanglement response network, which began taking action immediately to begin tracking the whale until a rescue mission could be launched.
“The stars really have to align for a mission like this because there are so many moving pieces from weather conditions to distance from shore to the ability to locate the whale,” says Ryan Berger, The Marine Mammal Center’s Northern Range Operations Manager. “In order for the mission to move forward, you need to have an experienced crew, the right equipment and a solid plan in place that prioritizes human safety.”
Members of the response team were able to locate the whale after several days of no sightings and a telemetry buoy with satellite and VHF radio signal was attached to the entanglement to help responders continue tracking the animal.
At 8 a.m. on August 8, groups of responders from The Marine Mammal Center, California Whale Rescue, Cascadia Research Collective, Humboldt State University, the United States Coast Guard and other members of the large whale entanglement response network left the dock to attempt a rescue.
More than two dozen people were involved in the effort on the water, each with a defined task from safety boats to equipment supply boats, all supporting the disentanglement boat, which must be small, lightweight and easy to maneuver around the whale. But there were also people on land supporting the mission—including veterinarians at The Marine Mammal Center and our dispatchers monitoring the phone lines.
“It takes a village to save a whale,” says Berger, who served as Deputy Incident Commander for the response event. “Strong, long-term partnerships with government agencies like NOAA, with universities and with other nonprofits ensure that you have all the necessary experience and expertise to pull from when mounting a response to an entangled whale.”
Within two hours, the team had located the whale and began to assess the entanglement and plan for the best method for removal of the gear from the whale. The teams also hoped to retrieve the gear to help determine where it came from and potentially how it became entangled on the whale.
“Responding to entangled whales is absolutely critical and necessary—but it’s vital that we also look at the larger issue in a holistic way,” Berger says. “It’s going to take research, innovation and partnerships with fishermen, industries and communities to solve the more complex problems that lead to entanglement in the first place.”
By noon, the team had made its final cuts to release the whale from the life-threatening entanglement. There’s an immediate sense of relief when that happens, when you realize the mission has succeeded and no one was harmed, says Dave Zahniser, The Marine Mammal Center’s Response Manager, a member of the five-person crew responsible for getting closest to the whale and cutting the line.
He describes a quiet celebration of handshakes and high fives as the whale swam away. But as the team began to retrieve the fishing gear from the water, he was already thinking about the next whale.
“After any response, we review what went well and how we accomplished our mission as a team,” Zahniser says. “We always want to be as prepared as possible when the next call comes in.”
What to Do if You Spot an Entangled Whale
Boaters are asked to keep a sharp lookout for entangled animals, but not to approach closely or attempt to free them. While well-intentioned, freeing a 40-ton animal is extremely dangerous for the animal and the would-be rescuer. Getting in the water is especially dangerous, and people have been killed.
As a result, only trained and well-equipped responders that are authorized under NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program are permitted to disentangle whales. The Marine Mammal Center is proud to be part of this life-saving work by providing trained responders when an animal is in need.
If you see any marine mammal in distress while out on the water, maintain 100 yards distance and call the NOAA Fisheries' 24/7 response hotline at 1-877-SOS-WHALE. If unable to call, radio the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF CH. 16, and they will relay the report.
All whale rescues are permitted under NOAA’s Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program # 18786-03.
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