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.

Pacific Whale Foundation Hosts Annual “Be Whale Aware” Lecture

Each winter, an estimated 10,000 humpback whales migrate from Alaska to Hawai’i to mate and give birth.  In Hawai’i, humpback whales are engaged in important social and behavioral activities. Approaching whales  too close or fast may disrupt these behaviors and cause unnecessary stress to the animals.

In order to promote responsible whalewatching, Pacific Whale Foundation developed the “Be Whale Aware” guidelines. These guidelines build on current federal and state regulations, as well as scientific research.

Greg Kaufman, Pacific Whale Foundation’s founder and Executive Director, annually hosts a public “Be Whale Aware” training program. The training is utilized as a way to share best practices that Pacific Whale Foundation has developed during three decades of whalewatching around Maui. As part of the November Making Waves lecture series, Kaufman presented the “Be Whale Aware” guidelines and results from Pacific Whale Foundation’s current humpback whale research.

Studies have shown that ship speed and size are major factors when it comes to ship strikes.  A vessel traveling over 15 knots, for example, has an 80% chance of causing lethal injuries if it hits a whale. At speeds below 11.8 knots, the chances of a lethal injury drop below 50% (Vanderlaan & Taggart, 2007).

Pacific Whale Foundation’s “Researcher on Board” study in 2011 recorded a total of 2,464 humpback whale sightings. Of those sightings, 133 (3%) were surprise encounters. Findings from the study support the theory that vessel speed is important in avoiding collisions with whales. Pacific Whale Foundation recommends that all vessels travel no faster than 15 knots in Maui County waters during whale season.

The “Be Whale Aware” guidelines also suggest not approach whales directly from the front or behind, limiting viewing time with mom’s and calves to 30 minutes, and not having more than three vessels watching a whale at one time.  Download a copy of the “Be Whale Aware” guidelines.

All ocean users are reminded that federal law prohibits approaching whales closer than 100 yards.

Pacific Whale Foundation has equipped its catamarans with Whale Protection Devices to guide whales away from propellers and running gear. Each Pacific Whale Foundation vessel is also required to post a red and yellow flag when the vessel is actively watching whales. The flag helps alert other boaters to slow down because whales are in the area.

This year, Pacific Whale Foundation’s research team will be working aboard the dedicated research vessel Ocean Protector to continue ongoing research to document humpback whales in the Maui region. Kaufman discussed that the study focuses on identifying ‘hot spots’ where it’s especially important for vessels to keep a watchful eye for whales and maintain reduced speeds.

Pacific Whale Foundation researchers will be photo-identifying individual whales and collecting data on age classes, gender (when apparent), pod compositions and group sizes of the whales encountered. Kaufman highlighted the importance of understanding which whales — males, females, calves, older whales — are likely to surface unexpectedly around boats. Knowing the answer to these questions will help greatly reduce the threat of ship-strikes in Maui County waters.

References sited:

Vanderlaan, A.S., & Taggart, C.T. (2007). Vessel collisions with whales: the probability of lethal injury based on speed. Marine Mammal Science, 23(1), 144-156.