Whales snared in ocean debris

A whale entangled in a shark net off Australia's Gold Coast

How many whales are snared and killed by fishing gear and ocean debris each year? No-one knows for sure - but the number entangled is probably huge, and the number dying significant.

Over the past few years, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) has been starting to address this issue more seriously than before.

At this year's annual meeting in Panama City, I caught up with David Mattila, who's on secondment with the IWC from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) in the US.

Noaa already has a specialist whale freeing team in place, and has even celebrated its work in video.

It all began in the late 1970s with Canadian Jon Lien, who started to free whales caught up in fishing gear off the Newfoundland coast.

David Mattila takes up the story:

"Where I started was in New England a couple of years later. Most of our whales were swimming, and actually it was an old-timer, a fisherman who'd hunted a few whales in the past, who suggested we try 'kegging' them, which is attaching our own rope and attaching buoys and maybe even being towed in a boat to keep them at the surface and slow them down."

The point is that if you can do this, you stand a much greater chance of being able to cut the animals free of whatever they're entangled in.

David and his colleagues have developed a few specialised tools of the trade.

One is a grapple that's thrown on the end of a rope, designed so that when it snares the rope already on the whale, it automatically latches on.

Two types of knife are used, both with a V-shaped blade that cuts as it pulls back, so the whale shouldn't be harmed.

David Mattila lecturing David Mattila demonstrates the equipment used
  • One is on the end of a pole - the disentangler hooks it around the rope that's snared the whale, pulls back, and cuts the rope
  • The second is a "flying knife" on the end of a rope, with the other end is attached to a buoy, or maybe the boat, generating a backwards pull, that will eventually cut the rope off and free the animal.

David is now unequivocally a specialist in the art of disentangling whales, his team having freed 1,000 over the years.

Around New England, where he works, 60-70% of right whales and humpbacks show scars typical of entanglement. These ones, of course, have survived and somehow thrown off whatever it was that snared them; how many do not is unclear.

What is clear is that it's not just an issue off the east coast of North America.

Data collected from researchers who have studied humpbacks all over the Pacific showed that in no population were there fewer than 20% that carried entanglement scars; and for most populations, the figure was much higher.

Recently, the IWC decided to start spreading the word and the skills.

A series of workshops has been convened. In March, the show went to Peninsula Valdes in Argentina, a major site for the southern right whale.

One of the people there was Miguel Iniguez, a scientist with the NGO Fundacion Cethus. Some of the session was very practical, he recalls: "Where to stand in the boat, where the rope must be thrown, whether the engine must be kept on."

But more than that, scientists, conservationists, fishermen, vets and others are now thinking about the issue - about how to build a co-ordinated system that can respond to entangled whales, and more importantly, how to stop them being entangled in the first place.

"The ultimate solution is prevention," says David Mattila. "That's the best thing for fishermen and the best thing for the whales."

That might mean different fishing gear. In Maine, for example, lobster fishermen who traditionally left loops of floating rope between their pots now have to use a rope that sinks to the sea bed, reducing the chance of entanglement.

Using a "flying knife" to cut fishing ropes around a whale A "flying knife" cuts ropes without harming the entangled whale

Curious whales have been known to entangle themselves in boat moorings. One solution could be to persuade owners to encase the rope in a stiff plastic sheath - at least for part of the year - that can't be twisted round.

The next part of the IWC plan is to hold a couple of workshops in the Caribbean in a mix of languages. Asia and Africa may follow.

The fact that the IWC is starting to look at this kind of conservation issue rather than just whale hunting has been quietly praised by a number of conservation groups, and by governments that have been encouraging it develop along these lines.

The US and others have put money into the organisation specifically for this kind of project. And it's finding common ground with pro-hunting Norway as well.

David Mattila's last word on disentangling whales is a cautionary one; don't try it yourself. Whales are wild animals, massively stronger than a human being, and may be spooked by attempts to help, especially when people jump in the water to do it.

Richard Black, Environment correspondent Article written by Richard Black Richard Black Former environment correspondent

Farewell and thanks for reading

This is my last entry for this page - I'm leaving the BBC to work, initially, on ocean conservation issues.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    31.RayCraig - ".....the daily bias by the corporation we pay tax to. They wouldn't publish an article that was pro whaling. They won't publish pro Christian ones either."

    What utter rot - the Beeb report the news & give space to both pro & anti religious comments from across the spectrum......every time they publish someone crisiticsing Christianity they give responses from Christians too....

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    Who cares!!?? Lets save these kids in Syria being massacred, then you may be called a silent hero. I struggle to see how saving a whale (of no significance to any of our lives) is worthy of comments such as 'hero' when the aid workers in Syria and other war torn countries go unknown! Makes me so angry!

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Whales are always worth saving. More humans than I care for aren't.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    What a fantastic job these guys do, they are silent heroes who make the world a better place even if it doesn't seem obvious at first.

    As human beings we consider ourselves the most advanced species in the world, yet we are the only one that actively destroys its own habitat - just something to think about.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    Good job. Seems humans' relationship with whales illustrate both the highest and lowest aspects of our nature

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    So whales aren't that intelligent after all

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Good work, Im sure they have a Whale of a time!

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    @25 Ray Craig We care about whales because they have an innate innocence and they can't speak out for themselves. Caring for animals does not stop us caring for people too but you have to deal with each issue in the appropriate forum, and this thread is for whales. If you think our society is closed, try one somwhere else...like Christian Fundamentalist America for example.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Regardless of what any brand of Sky-Fairy tradition has to say on sustainability, it has pragmatic benefits, unsustainable practises are by definition, unsustainable.
    The international, commercial whaling industry comprehensively proved it was unsustainable and could not be trusted to respect quotas, so the IWC Moratorium is the only thing standing between the Great Whale species and ecocide

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    #37 The whales are being tangled in fishing nets. Thats the connection. The idea that Christianity is anti-fishing is hilarious.

    If you want a real laugh look at what christians used to class as 'fish' to avoid eating 'meat' on Friday. The list included barnacle geese and beavers as being 'fish'. Classing whales as 'fish' is a minor mistake compared to calling a beaver one!

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    What have whales (mammals) to do with fish?Pity your gods don't produce better brain power!

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    Clinton will participate in 3 major conferences: the ASEAN Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers Meeting, & US-ASEAN Post-Ministerial Conference. Tensions between China & its neighbors over maritime disputes is sure to be high on agenda with whaling no where to be seen. As in all confrontation, the innocent are ignored; yet they become the sacrificial victims.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    #34 Wrong? what is Genesis 1.26 then? I'm quoting your bible at you. I presume the 'fish' that went along with the loaves when Jesus fed the 5000 were artificial fish made from Tofu. Personally I won't guess at what your Gods opinions are on any matter (the habit of religious types to do just that is why I'm anti-religious) but I'd suggest if he exists he can deal with whaling ships quite easily.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    32. Peter, Wrong I'm afraid. Pre Fall, World Diet Fruit & Nuts, Post Fall - Root Vegetables added, Post Flood, Meat. This was due to the dramatic climate change and change to our bodies & stature. This is why Seventh Day Adventists for instance are mostly vegetarian, some totally . I'm sure the Almighty does not frown on subsistence & care. But greed and drift-nets, he may take a dim view.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Must be deeply satisfying to help free a giant mammal from its suffering

    It is, I pulled my wife out of a cold bath this morning, felt great

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    #31. RayCraig
    Maybe a bible class time (from an Agnostic). Look up Genesis 1.26
    Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground."
    Sounds like God endorses whaling. Most of the disciples were fishermen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    I am a Christian, The original cal of God was to tend the Garden I.E. Look after the Planet and take care of it, we are all tenants. The Whale, The Leopard, The Elephant, should all be respected and protected. My comment was to highlight the daily bias by the corporation we pay tax to. They wouldn't publish an article that was pro whaling. They won't publish pro Christian ones either.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    60-70 % of whales show scars of entangling. Shame!
    Labour, Greens & ACT are backing Govt''s condemnation of S. Korea's decision to resume whaling.S. Korea is copying Japan's controversial "scientific research" - loophole in international moratorium. Let's hope East Asia Summit in Cambodia next week will alert these butchers to world's condemnation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    It is estimated from several different source that around 300,000 whales & dolphins die every year entangled in fishing gear. This serves no purpose; these whales & dolphins feed no one, except maybe scavenger fish - like sharps which gauche into them, torture them - bite by bite.
    Global community should have NO TASTE FOR THIS SUFFERING & SLAUGHTER!

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    @ RC "If you don't care for Humans, why should anyone care for Whales?"

    Humans have the ability to make others aware of a situation - as you are doing - and to instigate changes. Unfortunately Whales and other creatures do not have the same opportunities so it is up to the rest of the Human society to look out for them. You try being held under water by a net with no-one to help free you.


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