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You spot an entangled whale. Now what?

by NOAA Fisheries on 12 Oct 2017
Dave Morin and Scott Landry from Center for Coastal Studies (with cutting pole) aboard Maine Marine Patrol vessel in the process of disentangling a humpback whale off Mount Desert Island, Maine Maine Marine Patrol / NOAA MMHSRP
If you’re out enjoying a beautiful day on the ocean and suddenly spot a large whale entangled in rope, what should you do?

You want to help the struggling animal! But please do not try to disentangle the animal yourself. These are large, powerful wild animals, often in pain. Your first move should be to call NOAA’s Atlantic Large Whale Disentanglement Network.

This network of 20 authorized and specially trained public and private organizations, including state and federal agencies, responds to large whale entanglements along the U.S. East Coast. The hotline operates 24/7. Network members have extensive training in how to safely disentangle a large whale and increase its odds of surviving. No one without this training should approach entangled animals, as they are unpredictable and can harm well-intentioned bystanders. Disentangling whales is an extremely difficult business, and can result in tragedy, even with the best-trained responders.

Meet Dave Morin, GARFO’s Disentanglement Coordinator
GARFO Biologist David Morin manages the network, which has responded to hundreds of entangled whales since the mid-1990s. With more than a decade of experience, many of those years spent on the water rescuing whales himself, Dave now coordinates disentanglement efforts along the Atlantic coast. Since entangled whales can travel across international boundaries, Dave also coordinates with Canadian counterparts.

Dave started out by earning a Bachelor’s degree in biology at the University of New Hampshire and then, in 2001, began working as part of the Marine Animal Response Team at the Center for Coastal Studies on Cape Cod. There, he completed a great deal of training in animal response and rescue, and obtained the highest level of certification in this field. Dave is the only Level Five certified NOAA responder along the East Coast, and is able to lead a disentanglement effort on any species of whale or turtle.

Fishing Gear and Marine Debris
Large whales are most likely to become entangled in fishing gear and/or marine debris. Along the eastern seaboard, we have documented entangled humpback, North Atlantic right, sperm, minke, fin, sei, and blue whales. Dave works with other network members to develop new equipment and techniques to save our large whales.

Ropes or lines can cut into a whale’s body, cause serious injuries, become painful, and result in infections, any of which can prevent the animal from feeding, traveling, or socializing. When someone reports an entangled whale, time is of the essence. Rescues can take hours, if things go well, or weeks, if the entanglement is complicated.

For a critically endangered species, like the North Atlantic right whale, disentanglements are especially important. Approximately 83 percent of North Atlantic right whales have scars from entanglements, and almost half of them have been entangled more than once.

Mobilizing a Response
When a call comes in, Dave gathers information about the whale and contacts the network member closest to the whale. Network responders assess the situation, gather their tools, and, if the weather cooperates, head to sea as quickly as possible to find the whale. Sea state, weather, distance from shore, and the amount of time since the sighting all contribute to the complexity of the response.

Entangled whales stand the best chance of being rescued when vessels are able to stay with the animal, or are able to give information about the location and animal’s course of travel. When rescuers locate the entangled whale, they use specialized poles and cutting devices to make strategic cuts to the line. With luck, a few key cuts free the whale of the entangling gear.

Gear Analysis
Once removed, we send the gear to our experts for analysis and identification. If the gear doesn’t comply with regulations, NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement may have to take action. Information we gain from the recovered fishing gear helps us find ways to reduce entanglement risk.

How You Can Help
Remember, you can help entangled whales by following these steps:

Report the entanglement sightings as soon as possible, to our hotline 866-755-6622 or by radioing the U.S. Coast Guard on Channel 16.
Take pictures or video of the entanglement and record the location of the sighting. More information helps responders be better prepared.
Stay back—entangled animals are animals in pain or discomfort. Protect yourselves, your passengers, and the whales by keeping a safe distance. Do not travel directly behind the whale as unseen lines may be trailing.
Never attempt disentanglement on your own. This is illegal, dangerous, and could make the entanglement more lethal for the animal if the wrong rope is cut.
If you can, stand by the animal until rescuers arrive, or arrange for other vessels to stand by. An animal with no standby is less likely to be found again.

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