June 22, 2016
Today the Marine Animal Entanglement Response (MAER) team from the Provincetown based Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) worked to disentangle a large fin whale on Stellwagen Bank, east of Boston.
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The team managed to remove most of the entanglement, leaving just a short length of rope through the mouth that should be shed naturally over time.
The whale was reported by a tuna spotter pilot as he searched for tuna on Stellwagen Bank. The pilot stayed with the whale as the response team, which was conducting a whale research cruise just to the south, made its way on scene.
The nearly 60 foot long whale was swimming with the entanglement – a large loop of fishing rope and buoys – lodged in its mouth. When the MAER team arrived they found the whale traveling slowly with a series of buoys trailing nearly 70 feet behind its tail.
The responders used a thrown grappling hook, with sixty feet of line and a large buoy, to add a working line to the entanglement. When the whale dove it took the buoy under and began to swim very quickly, at one point sprinting at 20 mph. The drag of the buoy allowed the grappling hook to cut through the loop of fishing ropes. Once the loop was broken the MAER team repeated the process to shorten the length of the rope exiting either side of the whales’ mouth. Rather than try to pull the final section of rope out of the whales mouth, the team chose to let the whale continue on; during bouts of feeding the whale should be able to shed the remaining rope naturally over time.
Fin whales are the largest species of whale seen commonly off the New England coast, reaching lengths of 75 feet and weighing up to 60 tons. They are a species built for speed and not usually demonstrative at the surface. Entanglement reports of fin whales in the region are relatively rare which may be due to the fact that they are difficult to spot and do not show much of their body above the water line. Roughly 40% of fin whales, a federally Endangered Species, off southern New England bear scars from prior entanglement.
This individual whale was last seen by the Center for Coastal Studies in October of 2015. It was first seen entangled by recreational boaters on June 18, 2016, just east of Cape Cod. At that time the whale was traveling quickly and the boaters lost sight of the whale before the MAER team could mount a response.
The Center for Coastal Studies is grateful to the tuna spotter who reported and stood by this whale, and to the crew of the US Coast Guard vessel Hammerhead and the Massachusetts Environmental Police for their support. All mariners are urged to report entangled whales and sea turtles immediately to the USCG or to local responders.
Mariners are urged to report any entanglement sightings of whales, sea-turtles and other marine animals immediately to the Entanglement Response Hotline (1-800-900-3622) or the US Coast Guard (Channel 16), and to stand by the animal at a safe distance until trained responders arrive.
CCS disentanglement work is supported by a grant from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (MA-DMF). Support for the Marine Animal Response Team also comes from grants from the Massachusetts Environmental Trust, the Pegasus Foundation, the Hermann Foundation, the Mary P. Dolciani Halloran Foundation, the G. Unger Vetlesen Foundation, the Grace W. Allsop Foundation, the MALLRD Foundation, and contributions from CCS members. All disentanglement activities are conducted under a federal permit authorized by NOAA.