Grim Outlook for Humpback Entangled In Crab Buoys

April 27th 1:54 pm | By Jim Paulin

447_1Bering Sea crab buoys reported last month trailing behind a humpback whale in Hawaii could prove to be deadly for the animal, which appeared underweight and unhealthy, any may not live long enough to return to Alaska, , according to Ed Lyman, whale entanglement coordinator for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.

As of Monday, the whale had not been seen again, he said.

“Maybe there’s no happy ending on this one,” Lyman said.

The buoy’s numbers identified the vessel, which fishes for Tanner and king crab and finfish in Alaska. Lyman, an employee of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, declined to name the fishing vessel, but praised the fisherman for his cooperation.

Lyman said the fisherman was extremely surprised to receive a phone call informing him that his buoys were transported to Hawaii by whale, several thousand miles to the south, and didn’t know that he was missing any buoys.

Lyman said the thick plastic line is entangled in the whale’s mouth, and tail, and can interfere both with eating and maneuvering. Based on tour operator’s reports, the heavy crab pots were probably still not attached to the big marine mammal, he said.

The whale looked malnourished, and was covered with a thick carpeting of sea lice, he said. The three-quarters-inch diameter plastic line wrapped around the whale is probably better than thinner line which could cut deeper into the flesh, Lyman noted.

The line likely snapped off at the pot following an entanglement last year, he said. The pots weigh around 700 pounds each, and it’s unlikely a whale would have towed them all the way from Alaska. However, in 2007, an entangled whale was found in Hawaii with metal fragments from a crab pot, that had snapped off from a welded area, he said.

The whale may have accidentally encountered the fishing gear, or it may have been playing with it, something the humpbacks like to do sometimes, Lyman said.

Lyman said the search for the whale continues, and that well-intentioned effort to help the entangled marine mammal have actually made it more difficult to find and completely free the creature. He said that’s because the buoys were cut off, which is somewhat helpful and reduces drag, but that lines still remain wrapped around the whale’s body.

“Just cutting the buoys off doesn’t necessarily save the animals,” said Lyman, who said he has conducted whale entanglement workshops around Alaska, training state and federal government workers and fishermen.

The whale sanctuary’s superintendent issued a statement on March 13, warning of the dangers of untrained personnel trying to help entangled whales.

“Officials warn that such intervention by unauthorized and untrained members of the public is extremely dangerous and not allowed. For the animal’s and human safety, federal law prohibits approaching any humpback whale within 100 yards or less in Hawaiian waters. Only trained and well-equipped personnel are authorized under a NOAA Fisheries permit to mount responses.

“While the efforts may have helped the animal off Ni’ihau, they may also do harm and impede removal of any remaining gear. Wraps of gear that remain behind are likely still lethal. In addition, removing trailing gear and buoys makes it difficult to re-locate the animal.

“An authorized response involves a boat-based technique that uses specialized tools to safely free the animal and at the same time gain valuable information towards reducing the threat for other animals in the future,” according to the statement from the federal agency.

Lyman said people have died trying to save entangled whales.

“Every one wants to save the whales,” he said, adding “human life comes before the animal’s.”

The humpback whale is an endangered species. Humpback whales were plentiful in oceans worldwide before the global population was depleted by commercial whaling at the start of the 20th century. In 1993 it was estimated that there were 6,000 whales in the North Pacific Ocean, and that 4,000 of those came to Hawaii. Today, the population of humpback whales that uses Hawaii’s waters as their principle wintering ground is likely more than 10,000 animals, according to NOAA.

Hawaii is the only state in the United States where humpback whales mate, calve, and nurse their young. Humpbacks may find Hawaii is suitable because of the warm waters, the underwater visibility, the variety of ocean depths, and the lack of natural predators. Mothers can be seen breaching alongside their calves and males can be seen competing with one another for females in fierce head-to-head battles, according to NOAA.

The North Pacific stock of humpback whales feed during the summer in northern waters (between approximate latitudes of 40-75° N). The cool, nutrient rich waters around Alaska provide ideal feeding locations. Humpback whales have plate-like bristles known as baleen in their mouth instead of teeth. They feed on krill and small schooling fishes, such as capelin and herring, according to NOAA.

Lyman said whales do very little eating in Hawaii, because there just isn’t much food in the water.

Jim Paulin can be reached at jpaulin@reportalaska.com

From Report Alaska

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