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Whale Disentanglement

By Walter Bonora
National Marine Sanctuaries

There are few careers in the world where one could say only a handful do that type of work. Astronaut comes to mind. Deep wreck diving is another. One job that is dangerous and left to a small group of highly trained people is rescuing whales from entanglements. Few do it worldwide. Two of them are with NOAA’s Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.

To understand why freeing whales from entanglement is such a specialized endeavor, one needs to get a picture of their work environment. A typical scenario: after receiving a call from a passing vessel about a whale ensnared in lines, or floating nets,  whale rescuers generally leave the safety of a larger support boat, enter a much smaller inflatable-type vessel,  and approach an animal the size of a city bus. Then the rescuers have to figure out a way to set the animal free without hurting themselves or the whale,

Entangled Whale.
During a recent rescue response, rescuers photographed this humpback whale entangled in king crab gear that had floated down from Alaska. The heavy gauge line trailed aft under its flippers and twisted together behind its dorsal fin. Lines trailed under another 40 - 50 feet with two polyballs attached. One of the polyballs, which is a fisherman's marker buoy, is visible in the image. (NOAA permit #932-1489)
For Ed Lyman and David Mattila this was their calling. These whale rescue experts have dedicated much of their adult lives to cutting whales free. Why? Globally, entanglement in fishing gear and marine debris is a pervasive problem for the animals and the fishermen. Along with ship strikes, entanglement is one of the largest causes of human-induced mortality of many large whales. Getting caught in fishing gear often injures and kills whales and other marine mammals. So Lyman and Mattila decided to do something about the problem.

Working with state and federal agencies, scientists, fishermen and others from the marine community, Mattila and Lyman have helped free more than 75 large whales over the years. Mattila, a New London, Conn., native was one of the early whale disentanglers, working with the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, a whale research and rescue organization located on Cape Cod, Mass. The organization began cutting whales free along the East Coast in 1984.  At that time, Mattila, who attended the University of Washington, had been studying the whales for over a decade and had seen first-hand what the potential threat of entanglement was for even the largest whales. 

“When you have had the opportunity to work so closely with these animals like I have, and see the issues that threaten the whales and how it affects the fishermen, you want to do something about it - to alleviate the threats to the best of your ability.” said Mattila. 

Lyman, who was born in Millville, N.J., noted, “The primary threat of entanglement to large whales is not drowning. Their large size usually means they can pull the gear to the surface to breath. Instead, entanglement may cause physical trauma, prevent feeding,  lead to disease or infection, and render them susceptible to other threats, like ship-strikes.  In any event, for the large whales it is typically a slow death.” 

Mattila’s experiences and NOAA’s desire to address the issue, led them to work with the State of Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, and others to form the Hawaiian Islands Disentanglement Network, a community-based network that responds to entangled whales around the Hawaiian Islands.  Lyman assisted Mattila early on and in 2005 joined Mattila and the Humpback Whale Sanctuary in their efforts.  They and the network are authorized to carry out rescue efforts under NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program (MMHSRP permit # 932-1489).

The network had a very successful 2006- 2007 whale season.  They responded to 14 reports of entangled whales and cut free four of the six whales confirmed entangled.  According to Lyman, most of the entanglements were reported by commercial operations like dive charters, whale watching cruises, and tour boats. 

“In many ways they made the difference in what really is a community-based response network,” Lyman added.

“Still, what we do in helping rescue whales is like putting a band-aid on a very large wound,” Mattila noted. “In the bigger picture, the real solution is to stop turning the world’s oceans into a dumping ground. Stop fouling waters with marine debris, chemicals, and derelict fishing gear that has too often become a deathtrap for marine animals.”

Organizations like the National Marine Sanctuary Program, NOAA Fisheries' Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program, Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, the U.S. Coast Guard, and people like Mattila and Lyman are leading the way in rescuing whales, but more needs to be done to address significant threats to one of the world’s most majestic creatures.

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