It’s high summer in coastal BC, and that means the waters on our coast are getting crowded. It’s peak season for fishing, both recreational and commercial. Fisherman ply the waters looking for salmon, halibut, tuna, rockfish, crab, prawns and other ocean delicacies. The weather is fine and everyone wants to be out on the water, from sailors in 90-foot yachts to kayakers paddling around shorelines. It’s also peak season for whale watchers, because the density of whales is greatest around July and August.
Where high densities of marine mammals meet high densities of humans on the water, there is always a chance for negative interactions. Fishing gear left soaking, salmon farm net-pens and other ocean-borne garbage act like a deadly obstacle course for animals that just want to get from point A to point B and find a little food along the way. It’s all too easy for a whale or sea lion to blunder into a line of crab pots, getting tangled in the ropes and floats, or for a sea lion to poke its flipper through a fishing net, getting itself caught, or for a porpoise to ingest a piece of floating line that has broken off from a salmon farm, choking on it. These types of distress are called ‘entanglements’, and can cause the animals anything from slight discomfort to immediate death by drowning. But entanglements don’t have to be deadly: if caught in time, these animals can often be saved through a combination of responsible reporting, timely action, and a group of brave and well-trained professionals.
Throughout the world, on coastlines where marine mammals and sea turtles are frequently spotted and likely to become entangled, you will find stranding and entanglement response teams. Often made up of volunteers, these networks of seafaring heroes form a network of people who anybody can contact when they see an animal in trouble on the water, and who will drop everything to head out and help that animal. In British Columbia, the Marine Mammal Response Network is the most effective coordinator of rescue teams. They work with the Marine Education and Research Society, the Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Team, and several other associations along the coast. When a call comes in, they can coordinate the response to reach the imperiled animal quickly and efficiently by dispatching a local team. The Response Network is funded by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and led by Paul Cottrell, an experienced marine mammal handler and researcher. The Response Team gets called out to everything from dead marine mammals on a beach, to live stranded whales and porpoises, to entangled animals. Of all of these calls, entanglement are by far the most difficult and risky to deal with.
So how does one disentangle a tangled marine mammal? The short answer is: carefully, and with professional training. All members of the response network that get called out to entanglements need to undergo training and use special tools to perform their work. Despite what the internet will tell you, untrained passers-by should not attempt to disentangle marine mammals. Wild animals are dangerous: seals and sea lions have huge, sharp teeth and claws, and whales possess very powerful flippers and tails that, if they catch you the wrong way, can do a lot of damage.
Just earlier this month, Joe Howlett, a fisherman and veteran disentanglement specialist on the east coast of Canada, died when a whale he had just successfully freed from entanglement caught him with a stroke of its fin. Tragedies like these can happen when people take risks to rescue animals – even people with years of experience. Every entanglement is different, and complications often arise when trying to free the animal. In response to the death of Howlett, a renowned whale-rescuer, the Canadian government has begun reviewing and revising the safety protocol for rescue responders.
That said, anybody who has ever seen a marine mammal happily swim away after a life-threatening entanglement was cut away will tell you that the risk is worth it. There is nothing more human than showing compassion for other animals, even if there is some risk to yourself. If you’re interested in helping to save whales and other marine mammals in your local area, you should definitely find a local rescue coordinator and get proper training. Bring your friends, too – the chances are, there are more interested people like you that would love the chance to gain this kind of knowledge.
NOAA entanglement team cuts rope off humpback whale
Of course, the best solution would be to reduce the number of marine mammals becoming entangled in the first place. Obviously, we can’t just stop fishing. However, there is a lot we can do to reduce the risk of entanglement. For instance, most of the fishing gear that marine mammals get caught in is not being actively used. It’s old gear that has broken off or drifted away, never to be retrieved by the fishermen. Abandoned nets have been known to drift across entire oceans, snaring sea turtles, birds and marine mammals along the way. Other marine debris unrelated to fishing, like anchors, boat lines, plastic ties from parcels, pop can rings, and even gift-wrapping ribbon have been seen wrapped around the throats or fins of marine mammals and sea turtles. We need to start by reducing the problem, and that means paying more attention to what we buy and put in the ocean. Fishing practices can be managed to be less hazardous to whales, beach cleanups can be done to reduce marine debris, and next time you’re at the dollar store buying ribbon for a birthday present, think about where it may end up in two days, two months, or two years. If you like whales even a little bit (which you must, since you’re here), then we can all play a role in making the oceans safer for them.
Until then, we – and the whales – must rely on the people that give their time – and often risk life and limb – to help these scared, injured animals to swim free again.