Original article published by NOAA Fisheries.
A juvenile humpback whale about 25 feet long and entangled in numerous lines of fixed fishing gear was freed on Tuesday by responders from the Northcoast Marine Mammal Center, Humboldt State University, Oregon State University, U.S. Coast Guard, California Whale Rescue, and local fishermen and community members.
A fishing vessel first reported the entangled humpback about two miles off Crescent City on Thursday and provided initial observations to NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network.
Footage from a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter flight on Sunday helped determine that the entanglement involved several sets of fixed fishing gear wrapped around the tail flukes, the pectoral fins, and the mouth. The gear had essentially anchored the whale in place. Entanglements of this severity can lead to the eventual amputation of the flukes, and possible death of the whale.
After assessing the entanglement on Tuesday morning, the team first cut the lines affecting the mouth and then the pectoral fins, before turning their attention to the main point of entanglement, the tail flukes. The severe downward pull of the fishing gear prevented the whale from raising its tail to the surface. The team used large floats, or “poly balls,” to help lift lines off the bottom, creating some slack in the lines so the whale could surface and provide responders better access to lines around the tail.
Ultimately the poly ball floats did not provide enough slack in the lines, so the team worked with local fishermen in a carefully planned operation to haul up some of the heavy gear weighing down the tail. That created enough slack to let the whale surface, allowing the team to make the necessary cuts to remove all the entangling gear from the whale.
“This was a real team effort that succeeded in large part thanks to the community and fishing industry pitching in wherever they could,” said Justin Viezbicke, California Stranding Network Coordinator for NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region. “Last week our hearts sank when a disentanglement team member in Canada was lost, and that reminded us just how important safety is out there on the water. Fortunately today everyone is safe, including the whale.”
NOAA Fisheries thanks all the personnel involved, including teams from Northcoast Marine Mammal Center, Humboldt State University, Oregon State University, California Whale Rescue, Point Blue Conservation Science and community members who helped staff the response teams and standby vessels. In addition, NOAA Fisheries appreciates the help of fishermen who originally reported the entanglement, removed gear in the nearby vicinity to help reduce added threat to the already challenging situation, and assisted with evaluation and successful removal of the gear.
The U.S. Coast Guard also provided essential air and vessel support. The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Barracuda, home ported at the Woodley Island Marina, in Eureka, California, provided a safety zone and support for the small boat teams who freed the whale.
All authorized entanglement response efforts are permitted under NOAA’s Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program # 18786-01.