Humpback whales freed, thanks to partners mobilizing rapid response

Posted on August 11, 2014

NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network recently mobilized rescue teams to free a juvenile and adult humpback whale that, in separate events, had become entangled in fishing gear off the California Coast.

The rescue of the endangered whales demonstrates the value of the region’s Stranding Network, which depends on organizations spanning the West Coast to spot, track, and rescue marine mammals that become trapped in fishing lines and gear. Entanglements can injure and kill large whales. From 2000 to 2012, an average of 11 large whale entanglements a year occurred off the West Coast, although additional entanglements likely went unreported.

“Only through the cooperation of many different agencies and organizations could we respond to entanglements like these as quickly and effectively as we do,” said Justin Viezbicke, NOAA Fisheries’ California Stranding Network Coordinator.

In late April of this year, a whale became entangled in Dungeness crab gear near Monterey Bay. On April 27, a team dispatched to assess the status of the juvenile humpback, but poor weather prevented the team from removing the gear. They attached a satellite tag to the gear on the whale in order to track it. The following day the disentanglement team removed crab pots and more than 200 feet of line from the whale but deteriorating weather once again forced rescuers to abort the rescue before they could remove the remaining line, which was tightly wound and deeply embedded in the whale’s tail.


Map of entangled juvenile humpback whale satellite track with notes on rescue efforts. Graphic is courtesy of Lauren Saez, Ocean Associates, Inc. and NOAA Fisheries.

NOAA Fisheries tracked the whale by satellite as it swam south. Responders organized several times to intercept the ailing animal along the way, but bad weather repeatedly forced them to hold off. On May 14, a second multi-organization rescue team near Santa Barbara finally located the whale and removed the remaining fishing gear.

More good news came on July 5 when researchers spotted the freed humpback in Monterey Bay feeding with other whales. Photographs from the encounter indicated the animal was again using its tail and that the wound was healing.

entangled humpback and rescue boat

Rescue team with the juvenile humpback whale off of Santa Barbara, California on May 14th. Photo is courtesy of Alaska Whale Foundation.

humpback tail with healing wound

The disentangled juvenile humpback whale photographed again in Monterey Bay, California on July 5th. The notch, just above the tail on the right side of the photo is the healing wound left from the entanglement. Photo is courtesy of Marine Life Studies.

A second whale was rescued after a whale watching vessel reported it entangled near the shipping lanes off Santa Barbara on June 6. This humpback was wrapped in spot prawn gear and was nearly immobilized due to the quantity and weight of the gear. 

entangled humpback whale

Adult humpback whale entangled in spot prawn trap gear off of Santa Barbara on June 6th. Photo is courtesy of D. Beazer/Condor Express.

The West Coast Stranding Network worked with multiple organizations and fisherman to safely remove the gear from the whale, successfully disentangling it. Following the rescue, the fisherman retrieved the gear. The good news continued as this whale was also sighted later, gear-free, in the Santa Barbara area on July 3.

From 2000 to 2013, nearly half of the known large whale entanglements off the West Coast involved trap or pot-type gear. Twenty-two percent involved netting, while the remaining entanglements involved unidentified gear. NOAA Fisheries’ research has led to improved maps of areas where whales and fishing most commonly overlap and guidance for rescuers in identifying fishing gear typically involved in entanglements.

NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network is a voluntary consortium of federal, state, academic, and not-for-profit organizations dedicated to responding to strandings, such as the recent disentanglement events off the coast of California. These two rescues highlight the importance of the Stranding Network, and today, two humpbacks are freed thanks to the dedication of the California Academy of Science, Channel Islands National Park, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Clean Oceans Project, and a many other West Coast Stranding Network partners.  

To report a stranded or entangled marine mammal on the West Coast, call 877-SOS-WHAL (877-767-9425) or hail the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF channel 16. Please remember not to approach or attempt to untangle a whale without proper training and authorization, as you may further harm the animal and place yourself or others at risk.

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