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Report addresses painful whale deaths by entanglement in fishing line and gear

Injured Humpback whale fluke (tail) photographed off of Stellwagen Bank, MA.  A large portion of whales have entanglement scars.
Injured Humpback whale fluke (tail) photographed off of Stellwagen Bank, MA. A large portion of whales have entanglement scars.
Patricia Sullivan

Q: How are a dead baby Humpback whale and our fisherman’s platter related? Read on for clues.

In Vancouver, British Columbia a young Humpback whale comes ashore while alive, but dies hours after beaching himself. Necropsy (animal autopsy) results confirm the creature likely died a slow death from starvation after being entangled in fishing gear.

Later, reports from veterinary pathologist Stephen Raverty with the ministry of agriculture's Animal Health Centre indicate ropes had obviously been buried deep in the whale's mouth. Gouges on the whale's body revealed the scars and injuries from the virtually indestructible line that wrapped around the whale, and implied secondary infections from the injuries. The roughly eight-metre-long whale had no diseases or viruses when it beached itself and died on the tidal mud flats of White Rock beach, south of Vancouver on June 12.

Last May, a successful, down-to-the-wire rescue of a juvenile humpback whale entangled in prawn traps in British Columbia’s Knight’s Bay was credited to chance, as fisheries officers happened to be in the area responding to a float-plane incident joined Paul Cottrell, Fisheries and Oceans Canada Pacific marine mammal coordinator, who sped to the scene.

Fishing gear removed from the whales often lead researchers to track the origin and owner(s). Fishermen are obligated to report missing nets, particularly important when whales return to the area from their southerly migration.

These are just a few examples of entanglements that are publicized, but the glut of marine animals who suffer entanglements and die slow, agonizing deaths due to starvation, infection, predation and drowning may never be accurately recorded simply because they will not be seen. Rather, whales endure the distress of entanglement far off shore and when they die, they sink to the ocean floor.

Dr. Michael Moore of Massachusetts’ Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) and Julie M. van der Hoop’s recent report in the Journal of Marine Biology The Painful Side of Trap and Fixed Net Fisheries: Chronic Entanglement of Large Whales addresses the more obscure and gruesome aspects of mortality caused by entanglement in fishing net and gear. Moore: “The live stranding of a chronically entangled, emaciated humpback in Vancouver, BC makes this recently published short review remain pertinent.”

…Larger whales breaking free of, and subsequently carrying, fixed trap and net gear are subject to a very slow demise, averaging 6 months in the case of the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis). Chronic cases can involve impaired foraging, increased drag, infection, hemorrhage, and severe tissue damage. The individual suffering of these cases appears to be extreme.

source: Volume 2012 (2012), Article ID 230653, 4 pages doi:10.1155/2012/230653 Michael J. Moore and Julie M. van der Hoop

Humpback whales are listed as threatened under Canada's Species at Risk Act. In the US, humpback whales are protected under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

A: These events illustrate the connection between our food choices and the suffering of marine animals entangled in fishing line, nets and gear.

More about entangled whales here featuring Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies Scott Landry Humpback whale successfully disentangled after seven hours from fishing line and gill nets in Kitimat, BC 2011.

Global BC | Necropsy shows entanglement, starvation, likely killed young humpback on B.C. coast

2012 IWC ongoing In Panama


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