Rescue groups and fisheries officials race to save entangled humpback whales

Rescue groups and fisheries officials race to save entangled humpback whales

VANCOUVER — Marine mammal rescue groups and federal fisheries officials are working against time in waters off the coast of British Columbia to save three humpback whales entangled in fishing gear.

The first entangled animal, named Checkmate, was seen Saturday off east Vancouver Island but rescuers couldn’t get close enough to help it, said Paul Cottrell, the Pacific marine mammals co-ordinator for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Checkmate has a trap and line running through its mouth and is trailing other gear, he said.

When the whale was found, he said rescuers realized someone had cut off the buoy making it difficult to spot the animal and remove other gear.

The trap is “very close” to the body so it’s going to be “very difficult” to remove the rest of the gear, said Cottrell.

The other two entangled whales were sighted while rescuers were out looking for Checkmate.

“We get entanglements every year so it’s not atypical,” Cottrell said. “But it’s not usual to get so many at one time. It’s just been crazy.”

Fortunately, teams were able to remove a lot of the gear that the second whale, named X-ray, had been trailing, he said.

A satellite tag was also attached to X-ray so it could be relocated, and the rest of the gear could be removed but the team hasn’t seen the whale since.

“It’s very hard to follow the animals because they can move large distances and stay underwater for so long,” Cottrell explained.

The third yet-to-be-named whale seen near the Central Coast has netting around its head that Cottrell described as “problematic” because it makes it difficult for the animal to eat.

That whale is also trailing other gear, he said.

Once a whale gets entangled in one trap, it picks up other gear as it moves through the water column, he explained.

“It’s like if you step on gum, you’re going to pick up dirt and other stuff.”

Cottrell said these whales are “amazingly robust” and can carry gear for long periods of time, sometimes more than a year, depending on how it affects their foraging ability.

The whale with the net around its head and the one with the line running through its mouth are of greatest concern, he said.

British Columbia has seen a resurgence in humpback populations over the last few years with most of the animals coming from Hawaii to the inshore waters, said Cottrell.

“And really that’s a success story. But the downside is that we do have recreational commercial fisheries and we have a lot of lines in the water.”

Joe Gaydos said the humpback population is recovering so the entanglement of three animals is not going to affect overall numbers as it could for a species like the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

“That said, this is a huge animal welfare concern,” said the science director for the SeaDoc Society from the University of California, Davis.

“There is no denying that it is human caused injury and we know these animals can trail that gear for a long time causing prolonged suffering before death.”

Humpbacks are classified as special concern under the Species at Risk Act. They number about 18,000 according to the Fisheries and Oceans Canada website.

Cottrell said removing entangled fishing gear from whales is an exercise in caution and patience.

Experts use drones to assess the gear, entanglement and the best way to approach these animals to free them, he said.

Whales are huge and powerful and it can take a while to tire them out before getting close to them, he said adding they are usually agitated and uncomfortable because of the entanglement.

“They can’t do what they want to do, what they normally do and they’re not happy. There’s behavioural cues around trumpet blowing and they’ll do breaches, they’ll do tail slaps and all sorts of other things,” he said.

Martin Haulena, head veterinarian at the Ocean Wise Marine Mammal Centre and the Vancouver Aquarium, said it is important to catalogue the gear.

“So, we know what is affecting which whales so that we can help mitigate that in the future,” he said.

“I think it is a huge animal welfare concern as animals can suffer for a really long time and it is directly the result of human activity.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 31, 2020.

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press

Wildlife

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

134 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday

First day over 100 cases since July 31

330 km walk for charity stopping in Sylvan Lake

Chris Sadleir, 45, is walking from Calgary to Edmonton to raise money for the Lung Association

School curriculum to focus on basics, says LaGrange

Minister Adriana LaGrange, MLA for Red Deer South, said it will ‘unleash student potential’

1 in 7 Albertans have been tested for COVID-19

56 additional cases Thursday, 1,107 active cases remain in the province

Sylvan Lake man’s documentary getting limited run in Alberta theatres

Scott McDermott’s documentary will be in 14 theatres, including Sylvan Lake and Wetaskiwin

Protestors for Indigenous Lives Matter gather in Wetaskiwin

Protestors gathered along 56 St Wetaskiwin, Alta. August 4, 2020 for Indigenous Lives Matter.

Collapse of Nunavut ice shelf ‘like losing a good friend:’ glaciologist

The ice shelf on the northwestern edge of Ellesmere Island has shrunk 43 per cent

13-year-old charged in death of boy, 10 in Maskwacis

The RCMP Major Crimes Unit have laid a manslaughter charge against a 13-year-old boy from Maskwacis.

‘Caught up in the frenzy:’ Oilers 50/50 draw breaking ticket sale records

Previous record was held by Toronto Raptors fans when a 50/50 raffle reached $2 million

Alberta jury trials to resume next month at offsite locations due to COVID-19

About 12 locations across Alberta may host the trials in halls, hotels and community centres

Alberta school curriculum to focus on basics, keep out political bias: minister

NDP education critic says the kindergarten to Grade 4 changes should have been implemented a year ago

Statistics Canada says country gained 419,000 jobs in July

National unemployment rate was 10.9 per cent in July, down from the 12.3 per cent recorded in June

Canada plans $3.6 billion in retaliatory tariffs on U.S. in aluminium dispute

The new Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement that replaced NAFTA went into force on July 1

Walmart to make face masks mandatory for customers across Canada

Requirement goes into effect on Wednesday, Aug. 12 across Canada

Most Read