As the days begin to shorten, the waters off northeastern Vancouver Island team with activity as every animal is trying to get in their catch before the season is over. While using this opportunity to collect some data on the feeding activity of humpback whales yesterday, I came across a group of three whales that we at MERS know very well – Twister, Cutter, and Corporal. They were all tightly grouped and moving fast, seemingly panicked. I had a closer look through binoculars and was able to see the source of the panic – Cutter had ripped through a seine net and had it wrapped around his head and body.
Interestingly, one of Cutter’s companions, Twister, already has a history with fishing gear. In a period of less than 3 weeks in 2009 he became entangled twice. Both times, the fishermen who set the gear reported the incident immediately, and trained responders from DFO were able to free the whale. As was the case with Twister, a quick response provides the best chance of survival, so having been involved with the rescues of several entangled whales both in BC and in the Atlantic, I alerted the authorities and carefully moved in for a closer look.
Cutter was staying close to the surface and lifting his head high in the air allowing me to confirm with photographs that the net was just caught on the barnacles and tubercles of his bottom jaw. With the help of DFO and using standard disentanglement techniques including a long pole, lines, and flotation the net was grabbed onto and once tension was applied, Cutter tossed his head back and the 60-foot swath of net came off.
Within seconds Cutter went on a long dive, followed by Twister and Corporal. When Cutter surfaced again, he was alone but was relaxed and swimming slowly. This afternoon, we found Cutter looking healthy and behaving normally, feeding along with 3 other whales only a few miles from where I saw him yesterday.
This situation is a reminder that with the return of humpback whales to the coast of BC, there is increasing overlap between whales and fisheries. This is a difficult situation for both parties, as entanglements can lead to injuries and deaths for whales, and loss of catch and gear for fishermen. MERS has been studying the threat of entanglement since 2010, and has found that a significant number of the whales we have documented show scars from previous entanglements. If you see an entangled whale, call DFO’s Marine Mammal Incident Reporting Hotline immediately at 1-800-465-4336. If possible, standby the whale until trained responders arrive, but do not touch the whale or the entangling gear.