A young humpback whale freed off Haida Gwaii last week was so severely entangled with crab fishing gear that it was bent into a C-shape and unable to feed and barely swim.
The ropes were through its mouth and around its tail in several wraps, so every movement the humpback made was bending its body more and digging the ropes deeper into its flesh, said Paul Cottrell, marine mammal co-ordinator for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
Cottrell, other fisheries officers and a Parks Canada vessel were called to the waters about five nautical miles off Sandspit airport last Tuesday to help free the humpback.
The whale was tagged with a location device and the team returned early the next day to begin the complicated process of cutting away the ropes and float.
“It took several hours and the animal was in distress,” said Cottrell. “It was doing loops in the water and the ropes were tightening up because it was basically hog-tied.”
Cottrell said he was able to cut the rope out of the whale’s baleen and tail, but several loops of the rope remained deeply embedded in the tail. “We had to leave some of the rope there … it was about an inch into the flesh … and we’re hoping it will be OK,” he said.
The humpback was not immediately identified because the rescue teams were not able to examine its fluke patterns — the main way humpbacks are documented — so it isn’t known if the animal was from the Hawaii or Mexico groups that migrate here to feed.
The sex isn’t known, either, though Cottrell believes the 30-foot whale was likely a young adult.
DFO does not know how long the humpback was entangled, but the deeply embedded rope and barnacle growth on the gear suggests it had could have been several weeks.
The hope is that the humpback can straighten its body and fight off any infection the rope wounds could cause, said Cottrell. “It has a much better chance of surviving now and we gave it the best chance [of survival] we could.”
It’s the second rescue mission involving a humpback this year. Cottrell’s team saved a humpback off Port Hardy in January that was also found in a hog-tied situation with crab gear through the mouth and around the tail.
Last year, DFO received 35 reports of entangled humpbacks on B.C.’s coast. The marine mammal rescue unit — which uses drones and specialized gear — was able to find and free 18 animals.
With four reports and two rescues so early in the season, Cottrell expects those numbers to increase.
“We’re seeing more gear in the water and a lot more humpbacks … their resurgence has been amazing … so with their numbers going up, we’re seeing overlaps with fishing-gear issues,” said Cottrell.
He said it isn’t only Canadian fishing gear they’re seeing in entanglements. Rope and floats from other countries are also common as the whales ensnare themselves as they head back to B.C. waters from breeding and calving in Hawaii, Mexico and Central America.
Cottrell said ropeless fishing gear is being tested but is not in regular use here. Humpbacks are at risk with any vertical or horizontal lines, such as mooring and boat lines, as well as netting and other debris.
Ropeless technology uses an acoustic signal and floats that bring crab and lobster pots to the surface.
It has been used for science and military purposes, and is currently used in some parts of the world for commercial fishing, including in eastern Canada, where right whales are endangered.
“We’re the last line of defence that the humpbacks have, and it is my hope that one day they won’t be getting entangled and they put me out of a job,” Cottrell said.
Humpback whales, which were hunted to near-extinction more than a century ago, are making a remarkable recovery.
Last year, 396 individual humpbacks were documented in the waters around Vancouver Island — including 34 mothers with their first-year calves.
It’s an increase from the 293 humpbacks recorded in the same area five years ago and the highest number in a single year since record-keeping started more than two decades ago, according to the Humpback Whales of the Salish Sea Project.
The group collects sightings from researchers, ecotourism captains and naturalists and citizen scientists.
Humpbacks were hunted for their blubber, which was rendered to oil, and the population was decimated. When protective measures were put in place in the 1960s, the whales started making a comeback.
The biggest threat now for humpbacks is ship strikes and entanglements in fishing and crabbing lines — whales often drag floats and anchors for months before succumbing to exhaustion and drowning.
Ship strikes are believed to have caused at least two of the five humpbacks deaths discovered on the North Island and Haida Gwaii in November.