Freeing the Whales

Entanglement in fishing gear is responsible for the death of an estimated 300,000 whales and dolphins each year. Last year, a total of 13 individual humpbacks were confirmed entangled in Hawai’i waters. It was the highest annual number of confirmed large whale entanglements in Hawai’i since reporting began in 2002. While 13 confirmed entanglements is a far cry from 300,000 animals, the issue hits home when it happens right in your backyard.

On Maui, the Hawai’i Disentanglement Network is responsible for responding to large whale entanglements. The Network is comprised of Sanctuary staff, tour boat operators, commercial airline pilots, tugboat captains, fishers, researchers, and private citizens. The Network relies on these individuals to alert the proper authorities of an entanglement. On-the-water efforts to disentangle animals are led by the Sanctuary’s Large Whale Disentanglement Coordinator, Ed Lyman.

During the 2013/2014 whale season, Pacific Whale Foundation vessels reported humpback entanglements on six different occasions. Once an entangled whale has been spotted, Pacific Whale Foundation vessel staff immediately begin recording important information such as gear type and the location of the whale. A call is then placed to Ed Lyman, and the Pacific Whale Foundation vessel remains with the whale until the Hawaii Disentanglement Network team arrives on the scene. During this time, passengers are also encouraged to take photos of the whale. These photos assist in identifying the whale and provide a more complete understanding of the entanglement.

The two photos below, both taken by Pacific Whale Foundation passengers, demonstrate the importance of photo documenting an entanglement. The two photos are of the same whale, and were taken during the same tour. The photo on the left shows line wrapping around the whale’s fluke (tail). The photo on the right shows line wrapped around the whale’s body, forward of the dorsal fin.

Alone, these photos suggest that the entanglement is confined to a specific part of the body. Together, though, these photos indicate that the entanglement is extensive, and in fact, covers most of the whale’s body.

Unfortunately, by the time the Sanctuary vessel had arrived on the scene, weather conditions had deteriorated and darkness was falling. The team eventually lost site of the whale, and it was never re-sighted.

Most recently, on December 10th, a subadult humpback was spotted off of Sugar Beach entangled in heavy gauge, longline fishing gear. The gear trailed nearly 30 feet behind the whale, and was cutting into the whale’s flesh, creating deep wounds around the tail. The Network mounted an on-the-water response and successfully removed over 400 feet of line, which represented the majority of the entanglement. Since 2002, the Network has removed or recovered over 8,000 feet of entangling gear from 20 large whales around the main Hawaiian Islands.

In recent years, the number of recorded entanglements has increased. Unfortunately, scientists cannot determine how many humpback whales are annual killed as a result of entanglement. It is also likely that an increase in entanglement reports is due to more people on the water and increased public awareness. Nevertheless, entanglement has been identified as an ongoing threat to large whales around the world.

Luckily, you can make a difference for humpbacks no matter where you are located. Picking up trash helps prevent marine debris, and choosing seafood that uses sustainable methods decreases the chance that a whale will encounter dangerous gear. Pacific Whale Foundation vessels also make an effort to pick up any derelict fishing nets or gear when on the water.

If you are on Maui during whale season, alert authorities if you witness a whale pulling gear, or can see gear wrapped around a whale’s body. If you suspect an entanglement, call the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary at 808-879-2818.

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