Gray whale freed from rope entanglement thanks to international collaboration

Fall 2013

Gray whales will soon be seen migrating south along the West Coast. They’re traveling from from their summer feeding grounds off the coasts of Canada and the northwestern United States to their winter breeding areas near Baja California. A hunting ban in the 1930s helped the population recover, but gray whales still face many threats. Migrating an average of 9,900 miles each year, gray whales travel and feed very close to shore. They often pass within a mile or two of the shoreline and occasionally swim into coastal bays and waters. This migratory behavior makes the gray whale vulnerable to vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear or marine debris, as was recently witnessed in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

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On September 4, Makah Tribal biologists encountered an entangled whale near Cape Flattery on Washington’s outer coast. Through close observation they saw that the whale’s tailstock was wrapped in a piece of rope with a seaweed encrusted float attached. This launched what soon became an international effort to free the stressed animal.

Tribal biologists assembled a response team and contacted NOAA Fisheries to obtain a disentanglement kit and radio tracking buoy. On September 5, the Makah Tribe, assisted by NOAA Fisheries staff and the U.S. Coast Guard, set out to relocate the whale, assess the situation, and devise a strategy for releasing it. Two teams, each manning separate research vessels, left Neah Bay in search of the whale. One vessel headed west to Cape Flattery then south along the outer coast, and the other east in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The east-bound team soon observed the whale near Sail and Seal Rocks and radioed for the other crew to join them. Within a few minutes the trained teams attached the radio tracking buoy to the trailing rope and float to help find the whale should it be lost before the entangling rope could be removed. The teams worked for several hours to cut the line, but by day’s end the crew was unable to free the whale. With daylight coming to an end, the crew suspended its effort.

The next morning the disentanglement team was able to relocate the whale, but fog and poor visibility made it too dangerous to follow the animal. Using a radio receiver, the team was able to locate the tracking buoy through the fog and determine the whale was traveling north. (story continues)

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This map shows where the whale was first seen and where it was ultimately freed from the entanglement.

The American team notified Canadian officials of the entangled whale, hoping they too could help rescue the animal. On September 7, Parks Canada located the whale off Vancouver Island near Nitinat and launched a vessel to the site. A trained disentanglement team from Fisheries and Oceans Canada flew to the scene and began removing line from the whale, which was tightly wrapped around the whale’s tailstock. After several hours of steady work, the Canadian team successfully removed the rope and the gray whale swam away, free of gear.

“We are very happy the whale is free from the rope” said Brent Norberg, NOAA Fisheries Marine Mammal Coordinator. “We are fortunate to have a number of trained and dedicated disentanglement responders in our region, on both sides of the border. Over the years we have established a collaborative network that can work safely to help whales in trouble. We want to thank our colleagues at the Makah Tribe for leading this response, as well as the U.S. Coast Guard, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and Parks Canada for stepping in to make the release a success.”

Today, approximately 19,000 gray whales migrate along the Pacific Coast. They enter Canadian, U.S., and Mexican waters each year. International collaboration, like the disentanglement response we witnessed this September, is critical to the protection of these animals. In the U.S., gray whales are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and NOAA Fisheries works with our federal, state, Tribal, international, and non-profit partners to ensure we address the threats these mammals face.

To learn more about NOAA’s Disentanglement Program, called SOS-WHALe, please visit:

http://www.nwr.noaa.gov/protected_species/marine_mammals/disentanglement_network.html

To strengthen your knowledge of gray whales, please visit:  

http://www.nwr.noaa.gov/protected_species/marine_mammals/cetaceans/gray_whales.html

Home page photo by Joe Peterson, Makah Tribe, (used with permission). Photo this page by the Makah Tribe, (used with permission).