KidsPost: Rescuing whales entangled in fishing gear

This humpback whale, spotted off northeast Florida, has been entangled since 2007. Teams can't get close enough to untangle it.
This humpback whale, spotted off northeast Florida, has been entangled since 2007. Teams can't get close enough to untangle it. (Noaa)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 21, 2010

What does it take to save a large whale caught in fishing gear?


Each year, dozens of whales get entangled in gear off the East and West coasts that has been set for other animals in the sea, whether it's lobsters or groundfish. Last year alone, U.S. and Canadian authorities identified 30 entangled whales off the Atlantic Coast and 24 off the Pacific.

Since these nets and traps can wound and even kill whales, state and federal authorities spring into action as soon as someone reports a whale in trouble. Jamison Smith serves as the large whale disentanglement coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service, and he works with state teams in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina as well as the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies in Massachusetts, which pioneered the technique in the 1980s.

"It's not a risk-free enterprise," said Smith, noting that rescuers often fly small planes and face the challenge of cutting away rope wrapped around massive animals.

Blue Ocean Institute President Carl Safina published a book for young teens this year titled "Nina Delmar: The Great Whale Rescue," which recounts the tale of a 10-year-old girl who joins fishermen and scuba divers to save a tangled humpback whale in Monterey Bay, California. In it, Nina comes face to face with the whale as she clips a rope line that is cutting against the whale's tongue and jaw.

"The whale lifted her head a little, and Nina came eye to eye with her," Safina writes. "Her eye, set in wrinkled skin, was huge and sad and frightened-looking. Nina almost forgot her task for a moment, staring into that big eye, wishing she could say something."

Safina based his fiction book, which is illustrated by Dawn E. Navarro, on a real-life incident in December 2005, when divers saved a humpback tangled in crab lines about 18 miles off San Francisco. The whale nuzzled its rescuers, though no 10-year-old girl participated in the rescue.

Recently the federal government issued a series of rules aimed at keeping gear from entangling whales in the first place, including eliminating floating lines at the sea's surface that connect lobster traps. The government is devising another set of rules it hopes to finalize in 2014 that will make these incidents even rarer.

David Gouveia, NOAA's marine mammal coordinator, said he and other officials appreciate all the hard work whale rescue teams do off America's coasts. But when it comes to the work of whale disentanglement, "We want to put that out of business."

-- Juliet Eilperin

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