Blue whale drags fishing line from Los Angeles to Mexico

By Tracy Brighten

The blue whale entangled in fishing line off the Californian coast has moved south towards Mexican waters and could die if not found

Blue_whale_tail by Michael Baird

On Friday, whale response teams attached a buoy to the whale, found between Santa Catalina Island and the coast, to make it more visible before high seas thwarted rescue efforts, reported the Guardian.

Federal government officials assisted by boats, aeroplanes and helicopters searched the West coast on Saturday and Sunday, but were unable to locate the whale.

Estimated to be 80 feet long, the blue whale is dragging 200 feet of fishing line thought to be a crab pot line, according to Peter Wallerstein, president of Marine Animal Rescue.

Wallerstein said the whale was spouting, swimming on the surface, and diving, looking healthy but thin. The whale could not carry the line indefinitely, he said.

Marine mammals caught in fishing gear become tired from dragging the extra weight. The line can wrap more tightly around their body causing lacerations that can become infected.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare works with fishing industries and local communities to reduce fishing gear threats to marine life. The organisation says that entangled whales can become sick and die. Lines can be caught around fins and flukes, affecting mobility, or be caught in the whale’s baleen plates and affect feeding. Whales can slowly starve and drown, too weak to surface for air.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) estimates 308,000 whales and dolphins die each year after entanglement in fishing gear. It is thought that one in ten entanglements is never detected or reported. Lost or discarded fishing gear is a significant threat to migrating whales.

As rescuers work in small boats to get close to the whale, high seas and bad weather can impact the rescue attempt. Cutting a whale free is often dangerous for rescuers who are perceived as a threat by the entangled whale. Distressed and injured whales can be aggressive and may attack, or they can flee. Rescuers must be highly trained to ensure human and whale safety.

The IWC is working with international experts to build a global network of fully trained and equipped entanglement response teams. Rescuers are trained in protocol, rescue techniques, and whale behaviour. Since the global network’s inception in 2011, scientists, conservationists and government representatives from more than 20 countries have been educated.

In April, the Center for Biological Diversity, a U.S non-profit conservation organisation, issued a press release reporting that last year, record numbers of whales were entangled in fishing gear off the U.S Pacific coast. The group is urging Californian fisheries to reform the industry to protect marine mammals from injury and death.

National Marine Fisheries Service data shows 30 reported whale entanglements off the West coast in 2014, mostly gray or humpback whales caught in crab pot lines. This number is double that from 2013. To April this year, there were 25 reports of whale entanglements in California alone.

“It’s heartbreaking to know so many whales are getting tangled up in fishing gear. They often drown or drag gear around until they’re too exhausted to feed,” said Catherine Kilduff, the Center attorney who requested the National Marine Fisheries Service data.

The Center reports that many entanglements may go undetected, indicated by the number of humpback whales off the West coast with scars. One study found fatally entangled whales can take an average of six months to die.

Blue whales are classified as endangered on the International Union of Conservation for Nature (IUCN) Red List. The largest animal on the planet and weighing up to 200 tons, the blue whale swims at speeds of around 5 miles per hour, but can accelerate up to 20 miles per hour.

Although blue whales are known to be highly vulnerable to ship strikes, West coast response teams have not previously worked with a blue whale entangled in fishing gear.

The entangled blue whale was spotted again on Monday by a boat off the Mexican coast, but experienced marine mammal teams from RABEN, the Mexican whale disentanglement network, will not be able to help unless the whale moves further south into Mexican waters.

Anyone spotting the entangled blue whale should keep a distance of at least 800 feet, stay in the boat, call local Mexican authorities, leave a name, mobile number and GPS location, and wait for RABEN.  

In the event the whale returns north into U.S waters, the Entangled Whale Response Network can be contacted by calling (877) SOS-WHALE (877-767-9425).

Image credit: Tail Flukes by Michael Baird on Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)

Also published on The News Hub  September 9, 2015