Marine researchers are warning the public to watch for humpback whales entangled in fishing gear after a humpback whale was freed from polysteel rope off the coast of Haida Gwaii in the province’s northwest.
It has also sparked a call for a proper assessment of the cause of BC’s whale entanglement, with one researcher saying the problem could be widespread.
The rescue of the humpback whale on May 25 came after an appeal from the public, according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
Paul Cottrell, head of the marine mammal division, said the whale was in a “really, really terrible” situation and probably would have died had it not been rescued.
“It was tied — so the rope went through the mouth, back to the tail fin and tailstock and was actually wrapped tight,” he told Breaking:.
“In terms of the animal’s injury and deformity, this is one of the worst, if not the worst, I’ve dealt with.”
Cottrell says it’s likely the whale had been wrapped in the rope for quite some time, and the coils around the tailstock had penetrated an inch deep into the whale’s flesh. As a result, he probably hadn’t been able to eat for a while.
After a lengthy rescue period, during which the whale essentially towed the lifeboat, the marine rescuer says they managed to cut the polysteel rope without damaging the whale’s baleen – the mouth area.
“We were able to take off all the gear except those tight tail wraps,” he said. “It would have damaged the animal too much to try and take that out.”
As for whether the whale survives after the rescue, Cottrell said the rescue had given him a fighting chance.
“I don’t want to see that animal swim away and we all hope for the best,” he said. “We will keep an eye on this animal and hopefully see it next year and the year after that.”
Researcher asks for more education
Jackie Hildering, the education and communications director of the Marine Education and Rescue Society, said initial research had shown that more than half of British Columbia’s scarred humpback whales have survived an entanglement with fishing gear. She says more research needs to be done into what gear is causing the entanglements.
“This is something that needs to be stopped at the source. You will never find all the entangled whales,” she said. “They will simply escape detection on our coast.”
Humpback whales were considered an “endangered” species in BC until 2014, when efforts to restore their numbers led to success.
The North Pacific population is still considered “of special careunder the federal Species At Risk Act, as their numbers are recovering but not yet stable.
“Unlike killer whales, humpback whales don’t organize themselves into families, so you don’t know if someone is dying from any cause,” Hildering said. “Humpback whales don’t have biosonar like toothed whales.
“They’re coming back to this coast, they’re hungry, they’re…certainly at dinner time, less aware of their surroundings.”
The researcher says that given the number of entangled whales that have begun to appear, it is imperative that boaters be vigilant and call the DFO if they see one.
She also discouraged boaters from attempting a rescue themselves, adding that it is illegal to approach humpback whales and entanglement rescues are dangerous, even for professionals.
“The most valuable thing you can do is report it immediately and then… take pictures from a distance to prove who it is,” she said.
If you see an entangled whale, call the BC Marine Mammal hotline at 1-800-465-4336, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.