The Department of Fisheries and Oceans was called into action to rescue a juvenile Humpback whale near Klemtu on Sept. 12.
The whale, estimated to be under three years of age, was caught up in an anchor line near one of Marine Harvest’s empty aquaculture sites – the Sheep Passage fish farm.
“Our company has never experienced a whale caught up in an anchor line before,” said Marine Harvest Communication and Media spokesperson Ian Roberts, adding that there were no nets or fish at the site when the entanglement occurred.
“Fortunately our staff were quick to call experts at Fisheries & Oceans Canada following marine mammal distress reporting guidelines, and the team (lead by DFO Marine Mammal Coordinator Paul Cottrell) was able to safely free the whale,” said Roberts.
“We will review how this may have happened, and if we find changes are required to our anchoring design, we will do this across all farms,” Roberts said.
DFO received a number of calls about the whale, over a number of hours, said Cottrell.
“I came up and joined fisheries officers and the Kitasoo First Nations’ Coastal Guardian Watchmen Network who were on site, monitoring the whale until we arrived,” said Cottrell.
“We went and assessed the animal. You have to be so patient. We didn’t want to disturb the animal further,” he said.
They eventually got close enough to see the whale had several wraps around its body which caused severe damage on its dorsal side and tail flute. The rope was also through its mouth. The whale was anchored to an anchor line and “had very little movement,” Cottrell said.
“It was a very difficult entanglement. One wrong cut and we could leave gear on the animal that could be lethal.”
The painstaking process took six hours. The whale received a lot of superficial rope injuries, however, “we’re cautiously optimistic that the animal will make a recovery,” he said.
“We got all the gear off which is huge.Even one wrap can cause the death of an animal.
“”We’re going to monitor this animal,” he said.
“Over the past month, local residents had reported a similar-sized humpback whale swimming lethargically and thought to be entangled with marine debris,” said Roberts.
Cottrell confirmed that it looked like there were ropes that were potentially on the animal, that didn’t appear to be related (to the fish farm), “but we do have to confirm that (by looking at the video).”
They also discovered the whale had scars from a previous entanglement.
Cottrell said disentangling a whale is “very dangerous. You have to have specialized training and specialized tools.”He has done over 30 disentanglements, averaging three to five each year.
“Unfortunately, it seems to be happening more and more.”
Marine Education Research Society Education and Communications Director Jackie Hildering said the whale is one her group does not recognize and has not catalogued. However, “the photos we have would allow for re-identification,” Hildering said.
It is essential that more coastal British Columbians know what to do if an entanglement is witnessed since, with increasing numbers of humpbacks on B.C.’s coast, the risk of entanglement has become greater.
“Our preliminary results from research conducted with MERS/DFO suggest that over 47 per cent of Humpbacks in B.C. have been entangled,” said Hildering.
This data provides an indication of how serious the risk of entanglement is, but does not reveal how many Humpbacks die.
“That is only those that were entangled and survived,” she said.
People who find an entangled whale should immediately report it, along with the location, to the DFO Incident Line/VHF 16 or by phone 1-800-465-4336.
If at all possible, people are asked to stay with the whale, at a safe distance, until trained help arrives or another boat takes over tracking, otherwise the chances of finding the whale again are greatly diminished.
People should take whatever video/photos are possible, but maintain a distance that doesn’t stress the whale.Do not attempt to remove any fishing gear or rope from the whale as it risks human and whale safety and has led to human death.
Often, much of the fishing gear the whale is tangled in is not visible at the surface. Trailing gear provides the opportunity for trained responders to attach a tag to track the whale and/or to attach floatation devices to maintain contact with and slow the animal down.