Over 65% of North Atlantic right whales have scars from being entangled in fishing gear. No one knows how many whales, sharks, turtles, dolphins and porpoises die from entanglements every year.
In the meantime people are being trained and equipped to rescue whales entangled in fishing gear when it is possible to do so safely. The Provincetown Center For Coastal Studies (PCCS) in Massachusetts is the lead organization in developing tools and techniques and in training other whale rescue organizations and individuals in Canada and the United States. PCCS has participated in the training of the Campobello Whale Rescue group which responds to entanglement events in Canadian waters.
How do rescuers manage to disentangle free-swimming whales from fishing gear? Every entanglement is unique and every whale reacts differently to the stress and discomfort of the situation. A rescue can take hours, if things go well, or weeks if the entanglement is complicated. Unfortunately the panicked whale often makes the rescue more difficult and dangerous by avoiding the rescue vessel and sometimes even showing aggressive behaviour.
When the whale is first spotted, rescuers examine photographs and video taken from boats and planes. They need to know how badly the whale is entangled and whether the fishing gear is wrapped around the whale's flippers, around its fluke or through its mouth. Only then can the rescue team form a plan of action.
If there is line trailing behind the whale, they try to grab it from a boat with a grapple and to attach buoys to it. The extra drag from the buoys should slow the whale down, although slowing down a panic-stricken giant is more easily said than done. This technique is known as kegging.
Kegging was used in the whaling days to slow down a harpooned whale. It took its name from the air-filled kegs that were attached to the harpoon line. In whale rescues the same method has a happier result for the whale.
Once a whale slows down, the rescuers approach in a five-metre inflatable boat. When working close to the whale, the rescuers take the engine out of the water so that any ropes or lines trailing from the whale do not get caught in it. Once they are close enough, they start to cut the gear off the whale, reaching with a series of hooked knives mounted at the ends of poles.
At the end of each day's rescue attempt all gear that has been attached to the whale by rescuers is removed and a telemetry buoy is attached. This buoy sends satellite and radio signals that will help relocate the whale if more work is needed to free it.
Your help with the disentanglement network is critically important and greatly appreciated. The network can not succeed without the help of many eyes and ears on the water. Entangled whales in Canada are reported through the Fisheries and Ocean Canada Environmental Emergencies number 1-800-565-1633. Entangled whales in the United States are reported through the US Coast Guard, VHF channel 16 or the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies hotline at 1-800-900-3622.
More in-depth information on whale rescue can be found on the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies website.
If you see an entangled, injured, or beached whale
- Are you with the whale now? If yes, what is the location? If no, when and where did you last see the whale?
- What kind of whale is it? Can you describe it?
- Is the whale anchored? If not, in which direction is it moving? Is it lifting its tail flukes?
- Can you see lines or fishing gear? Please describe?
- Where is the gear? Around the head? Around the flippers? Around the tail flukes? Around the entire body?
- Is the whale able to breathe? Can you hear or see it breathing?
If you see a dead whale
- Is the whale floating or beached?
- Is it lying on its back, belly, or side?
- Is the whales body covered in skin? (If the skin has decayed then the body will be a whitish color)
- Can you see side flippers of tail flukes?