DISENTANGLING A WHALE TAKES TRAINING, SKILL

First published in Landings, July, 2016

Many visitors to Maine this summer will go out on a whale watching tour. If they are lucky they may see one of the Gulf of Maine’s many whale species: humpback, sei, minke, finback, or the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

Unfortunately, the whales that enrapture visitors may find themselves entangled in fishing gear as they traverse the region. Rope from lobster traps, fishing nets and other gear can cause serious harm to or even kill an entangled whale. The Marine Mammal Protection Act, passed by Congress in 1972, requires that such animals be set free as soon as possible.

Department of Marine Resources Marine Patrol officers and NOAA staff untangle a humpback whale off Mount Desert Island. DMR photo.
Department of Marine Resources Marine Patrol officers and NOAA staff untangle a humpback whale off Mount Desert Island. DMR photo.

But that’s not easy. A whale is a big animal with powerful muscles and, like any wild animal, will shy away from a human’s approach. North Atlantic right whales are among the most powerful of the whale species found in the Gulf and the most depleted in population. Getting fishing gear off a whale is a dangerous process, both for the whale and for the rescuers. Thus only those specifically trained in the proper procedures are legally allowed to do so.

The NOAA Fisheries Service certifies who can disentangle a whale. Initially, only staff from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies (PCCS) were licensed to do so. Trained personnel from the Center travelled all along the East Coast in response to sightings of entangled whales. In 1995, NOAA organized the Atlantic Large Whale Disentanglement Network in order to coordinate responses to sightings. Finally, in 2009 NOAA Fisheries moved to a decentralized approach. It began to work with state agencies to develop trained regional response teams. In addition, NOAA Fisheries set up agreements with states through Section 6 of the Endangered Species Act to provide funds for whale conservation and disentanglement activities.

In Maine, only trained staff in the Bureaus of Marine Patrol and Marine Science within the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) are authorized to disentangle a whale. Earlier, beginning around 2002, lobstermen had been trained by the department and experts to disentangle non-endangered marine mammals. Nearly 100 lobstermen were trained as Level 2 responders and 12 lobster boats were equipped with stainless steel cutting and grappling tools, explained Laura Ludwig, who worked for DMR at the time and is now at PCCS. Keeping a large number of fishermen up to date in terms of training proved too unwieldy, however; getting in touch with them on short notice in the event of an entanglement was difficult as well. NOAA Fisheries moved away from fishermen responders to a trained team approach.

“There are nine [Marine Patrol] officers and myself trained to Level 3,” explained Erin Summers, a marine resource scientist at DMR [see sidebar]. “Two are about ready to move up to Level 4.”

The object of the responders is to free the whale from any gear tangled around its body. That is difficult when the animal is swimming freely. In order to get close enough to the whale and reduce the risk of injury, the responders attempt to tire the animal. Kegging buoys, typically polyballs, are attached to the trailing gear to create more drag and to keep the whale at the surface where it can be approached.

Six of the bureau’s vessels are outfitted with equipment kits designed specifically to disentangle a whale. “The kits carry 10-foot aluminum or carbon fiber pole sections that can be fit together to different lengths,” Summers said. “There are cutting tools — a flying knife [used when the animal is moving] and a fixed knife. Plus different types of grapples.” Most often used is a four-prong grapple with a line tied to it which is thrown across the trailing gear in an effort to latch on. The vessels also have standard and GoPro cameras to document the entanglement. The GoPro cameras can be attached to the vessel, on the helmet of a responder, or mounted on a pole to get underwater footage of the entanglement. There are also satellite tags which can be attached to the whale to track its location if responders can’t begin work immediately.

Advanced training for responders takes place at PCCS in Provincetown. “The Center runs a multi-day program on assessment, how to attach to a whale, and other essentials,” explained David Morin, NOAA Fisheries large whale disentanglement coordinator. Those attending the class watch videos the Center has recorded of disentanglement cases and practice techniques on the water. “One vessel will act as the whale, trailing gear behind it as it moves. The other team practices grapple throws, attaching buoys and cutting,” Morin explained. To move to a higher level requires an advancing amount of experience and skill. “There is no concrete number of cases required,” Morin continued. “It really depends on the difficulty of the situation. A panel of advanced disentanglers reviews a person’s resume to decide.”

The number of whale entanglements along the coast of Maine varies from year to year, Summers said. One year there may be three or more incidents; in other years, none. To keep their skills sharp, the Marine Patrol Officers regularly take part in refresher training exercises. In addition, DMR recently acquired an inflatable soft-bottom boat specifically to use for entanglement incidents through a grant given by the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund. The new boat can be sent quickly to wherever it is needed on the coast. Marine Patrol Officers are learning how to deploy the boat this summer.

In Morin’s opinion, the most important thing to keep in mind when disentangling a whale is patience. “Take your time and understand how the whale is wrapped in the gear,” he said. “You don’t have to do something right away. If the animal can get to the surface to breath, you have days, even weeks.”

If you see an entangled whale, contact the NOAA Fisheries hotline immediately at 866-755-6622.

NOAA Disentanglement Network Certification Levels:

Level 1: Professional mariners (i.e. fishermen, naturalists, Marine Patrol Officers). Boating experience and/or experience around whales is highly suggested.

Responsibilities:

Rapidly alert NOAA Fisheries Disentanglement Network of first hand and/or second hand knowledge of local entanglements;

Depending on experience, stand by an entangled whale until backup arrives; and/or

Communicate with crew on the vessel that is directly standing by the entangled whale and offer to replace the stand-by vessel until additional backup or the response team arrives.

 

Level 2: Professional mariners. There is a higher expectation of commitment and participation from Level 2 responders.

Responsibilities:

Provide a thorough assessment of the nature of the entanglement and the species, condition and behavior of the whale;

Provide local knowledge, transportation, and assistance to Primary First Responders, as needed, on a voluntary basis;

Be on call, as available, to assist in planned disentanglement operations on telemetry-tagged whales.

 

Level 3: Whale researchers and naturalists, fishermen, natural resource agency personnel, Marine Patrol Officers.

Responsibilities:

Be on call 24 hours and respond if conditions allow;

Initiate and maintain preparedness with local fishing industry, U.S. Coast Guard, and other resources;

Prepare local disentanglement action plan;

Provide entanglement assessment, documentation and recommendations to Primary Disentanglers during events;

Attach telemetry equipment to entangling gear if needed and authorized.

May be asked to disentangle a minor entanglement other than North Atlantic right whale under the supervision/authorization of Level 4 or 5 network members. Authorization and supervision may be given over the phone or radio depending on the circumstances and level of experience.

 

Level 4:

Responsibilities:

Report, stand by, assess, document, attach a telemetry buoy, consult on an action plan and disentangle all large whales except North Atlantic right whales

Report, stand by, assess, document and attach a telemetry buoy to North Atlantic right whales

On a case-by-case basis and after consultation, certain cuts on known entangled North Atlantic right whales may be permitted at level 4 if the proposed action is first approved by NOAA Fisheries Service and/or level 5 disentanglers

Level 4 Disentanglers should routinely be able to attempt disentanglement of all large whales other than North Atlantic right whales.

 

Level 5:

Responsibilities:

Report, stand by, assess, document, attach a telemetry buoy, consult on an action plan and disentangle all large whales including North Atlantic right whales.

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