Team Frees Endangered Right Whale Caught in Fishing Lines off Florida

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By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A team of federal, state and nonprofit marine mammal experts managed to free a critically endangered right whale this weekend off the Florida coast after it became tangled in fishing lines during its annual migration along the Eastern seaboard.

The three-day effort, which involved land, air and sea support from six institutions, succeeded in rescuing a whale from a species that now numbers only 300 to 400. North Atlantic right whales -- which float after being harpooned, earning them the reputation centuries ago of being the "right" whale to kill -- have seen their numbers plummet in part because they often become ensnared in fishing gear or are struck by ships as they travel up and down the East Coast.

"It's a great day in the world of right whales," said Jamison Smith, large whale disentanglement coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service. "When you have this small a population, every animal counts."

The whale, known only as "calf of right whale 1701," was born in the winter of 2007 and was spotted free of entanglements on Sept. 25 in the Bay of Fundy, off Canada. But on Friday, an aerial survey -- which is conducted each day between December and April to alert ships of right whales that could be in their paths -- showed the animal caught in two fishing lines.

A team of three rescuers reached the whale Saturday afternoon "just as light was fading," said Tom Pitchford, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist who took part in the expedition. The two lines formed a sort of a bridle on the whale, which was sighted off Crescent Beach, just south of St. Augustine, Fla.

The group cut off about 350 feet of line that was trailing the animal, and attached a satellite tag to track its movements. Once they got back to shore, however, they discovered the tag was not functioning, and they had to locate the whale again the next day by aircraft.

On Saturday, seven people in three boats, two of which were supplied by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, worked to free the creature. Right whales are often uncooperative, but this one did not actively resist the team's efforts.

"I knew I wasn't dealing with the largest and most powerful of them," Pitchford said. "There's no sense I ever got that it knew we were there to help it. It wanted to swim away from us."

The team did not pull either of the fishing lines out of the whale's mouth, because doing so could harm it. On Sunday, the group determined through an aerial sighting that the animal was free of the line, making it less likely that it would develop an infection, which in some instances can lead to death.

Smith estimated that only 50 percent of attempts to disentangle whales succeed.

Federal officials have been crafting new fishing gear regulations in an effort to reduce the number of such entanglement incidents. Beginning in April, all East Coast fisheries that use trap pots will have to use sinking lines that lie on the sea floor, rather than float in the water. "That's going to be a major risk reduction," said David Gouveia, marine mammal program coordinator for NOAA Fisheries.

The government is also now requiring "weak links" in the sink gill nets used to catch ground fish, so that if a whale runs into the net it will break rather than trap the animal. Gouveia described the rules as "a two-pronged approach" aimed at addressing entanglements, adding that NOAA has spent more than $9 million on "buyback programs" so fisherman can modify their gear.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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