While the gales of winter have reduced (though not eliminated) the number of whale entanglement sightings in the Gulf of Maine, reports to the south have been coming in with alarming regularity. Most notable are a series of sightings of entangled right whales by our colleagues surveying the winter calving grounds off Florida and Georgia. As survey effort in this critical habitat has increased in recent years, so has the discovery of entanglement cases. Since Christmas Day, five cases of entangled right whales have been confirmed, including the mother of a mother/calf pair. While three of these cases may not be serious (and will be monitored for any changes), the remaining two are a different story. One case in particular highlights many of the challenges and limitations of disentanglement.
First sighted on December 25, 2010 by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) aerial survey team offshore of Jacksonville Beach, right whale #3911 (identified by the New England Aquarium) had an incredibly complex entanglement, with wraps of rope around her head and flippers. The two-year-old whale had grown into these lines and her condition was exceptionally poor, with little body fat and many active wounds. Over the next month, using a telemetry buoy affixed to her entanglement for tracking, a series of disentanglement operations were made that relieved the whale of much of its entanglement. These efforts were a massive collaboration between FWC, the Georgia Department Natural Resources, EcoHealth Alliance, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the New England Aquarium, the University of Florida, and PCCS. Despite it all, the carcass of #3911 was found floating offshore of St. Augustine Inlet on February 1, 2011. Towed ashore, her body and the remaining entangling gear will be examined for what they can tell us about how this happened, and how it can be prevented.
Disentanglement is by no means the solution to the entanglement problem since it can only help some of the few entangled whales that are found. Prior to her entanglement sighting, the last known record of #3911 was in February, 2010. During the intervening time she had become entangled, had seriously declined and had apparently been seen or reported by no one. This is a testament to the size of the ocean versus our relatively meager ability to survey that area for whales. While entanglements may not be rare, sightings of entangled whales are very rare and are the only hope for disentanglement. Had she been found earlier, perhaps all of these efforts could have had a greater impact. Until viable entanglement prevention is found PCCS will continue its entanglement response efforts, including outreach to mariners that solicits prompt reporting of entangled marine animals.
To view prior posts, click here!