MERS hoping investigation leads to reduced risk to whales

The Marine Education Research Society hopes investigation into second humpback whale entanglement leads to reduced risk to whales.

The Marine Education and Research Society is hoping the investigation into the second humpback whale entangled in a fish farm will lead to reduced risk to whales.

The first whale, entangled on Sept. 12 at the fallow Sheep Passage site near Klemtu was freed by those with entanglement training.

As reported by Marine Harvest, the body of the second whale was discovered in the same location by their staff and contractors who were dismantling the site’s anchoring system after the previous entanglement.

Marine Harvest Canada’s Ian Roberts says it is a secondary line that “seems to have contributed (to these two entanglements).”

Those support lines, Roberts said, are “not an integral part of the system,” so they are currently being removed from multiple sites.

“The company is immediately contracting a submersible ROV (remotely-operated vehicle) to remove those anchor support lines,” Roberts said.

Marine Harvest will be inspecting their other sites that have similar designs for their anchoring systems, and “if we have to, we’ll remove those lines, as well.”

Due to the many questions being posed about the issue of whale entanglement, the Marine Education and Research Society (MERS) has provided a backgrounder on the issue. MERS says it is not possible to definitively say if the whale that was disentangled two months earlier at the same site survived its injuries as there have been no documented resightings.

The latest entanglement is under investigation by Fisheries and Ocean’s Canada (DFO).

MERS Humpback Researcher, Jackie Hildering, says “we are striving to find out if the results will be made public and if the results may inform policy and regulations around open-net fish farm anchor systems.”

It is believed that the humpback found dead on Nov. 15 drowned.

Hildering explains “whales are mammals and therefore need to come to the surface to breathe. They will drown if they are anchored to the bottom because of being trapped in ropes or fishing gear. It is hoped that the DFO investigation will provide insight into the specifics of this anchor system and how the humpback died,” she said.

“Wherever there are lines or fishing gear in the ocean, there is the potential for entanglement, especially in areas where humpbacks are feeding. They feed on krill and small schooling fish like herring and it can be expected that these prey are in the same areas as open-net fish farms.

“It is essential to realize that Humpbacks do not have the biosonar that toothed whales like Orca have and they can be extremely oblivious of boats, let alone fishing gear,” said Hildering.

If whales have enough mobility to swim away, entanglement can also cause death due to the fishing gear in which they are wrapped leading to serious injuries and infections, and/or because the gear makes it impossible for them to travel and feed effectively.

Preliminary research conducted by the Marine Education and Research Society and DFO supports the fact that 47 per cent of Humpbacks have scarring on their tailstocks that indicate that they have been entangled and survived.”

“This indicates how widespread the risk of entanglement is, but does not indicate how many humpbacks die due to entanglement.

Dead whales most often sink to the ocean bottom whereby their deaths cannot be documented. If their bodies do wash ashore on BC’s vast coastline, often they are so decayed that cause of death cannot be determined.”

In addition to these two reported cases of entangled humpbacks at fish farms, there was another documented incident of a dead humpback in March 2013 near Tofino at a Mainstream Canada site (now Cermaq).

Hildering explains that Humpbacks were extremely rare on BC’s coast even 15 years ago.

Humpbacks were whaled in BC waters up to 1966. MERS research shows that in the islands outside Telegraph Cove just seven humpbacks were documented in 2004, and this year to date, they have documented 83 individuals (some just passing through). The population estimate for humpbacks feeding in BC waters is at least 2,000.

With more humpbacks, there is more risk of entanglement.

The MERS backgrounder reports that there are no regulations that address the gear left at fallow fish farms. “It is hoped this will be an outcome of what is learned from these entanglements.”

Existing regulations applying to aquaculture and marine mammals include that in the Pacific Aquaculture Regulations, marine mammals are regulated under the term ‘nuisance fish’ and there is obligatory reporting on “the number and species of nuisance fish that die as a result of the aquaculture facility’s operations.

The Marine Finfish Aquaculture Licence states “the licence holder must notify the Department (DFO) of any marine mammal drowning mortality or entanglement (live or dead) no later than 24 hours after discovery.

The Marine Mammal Regulations state there is to be no disturbance of a marine mammal, but ‘disturbance’ is not defined and “it is hoped this will be an outcome of what is learned from these entanglements.”

Under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, North Pacific Humpbacks are recognized as a threatened population. General prohibitions include “no person shall kill, harm, harass, capture or take an individual of a wildlife species that is listed as an extirpated species, an endangered species or a threatened species.”

If someone witnesses an entanglement they should report it immediately to the DFO Incident Line/VHF 16 or 1-800-465-4336.

If at all possible, witnesses should remain with the whale, at a distance, until trained help arrives or another boat takes over tracking, otherwise the chances of relocating the whale are greatly diminished.

Take whatever video or photos are possible, but maintain a distance that doesn’t stress the whale (at least 100 metres).

Do not attempt to remove any fishing gear or rope from the whale as it risks human and whale safety and has, in fact, led to human death. Professional training and equipment are needed to assess the entanglement and proceed safely with the greatest chance of success.

Often, much of the fishing gear in which the whale is entangled is not visible at the surface. If well intentioned members of the public remove the gear at the surface, it is made much more difficult to recognize that the whale is entangled; and disentangle the whale even if it is relocated.

Trailing gear at the surface provides the opportunity for trained responders to attach a tag to track the whale and/or to attach floatation to maintain contact with and slow down an entangled whale.

Loss of this gear can significantly reduce rescuers’ ability to save the whale. For more information about reducing the risk of vessel strike and entanglement of whales, see www

 

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