PORTUGAL COVE-ST. PHILIP’S, N.L. – There are few more helpless images than that of a 50-tonne humpback whale snarled in nylon gill netting, unable to free its massive body as it slowly begins to drown.
About 5,000 humpbacks will arrive for summer feeding off Newfoundland. The federal government is hiring help to free those whales and other species, many of them listed at-risk, that will inevitably get caught in fishing gear.
It’s offering a four-month contract starting Aug. 1 for a 24-hour emergency service for marine animals that are tangled, stranded or in trouble.
Ottawa funds such efforts each year as the province records more tangling incidents than any other part of the country.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada says about 50 incidents in each of the last two years have been reported, but it’s not clear how many whales have died.
Many incidents are not officially reported.
Wayne Ledwell has led the 24-hour assistance program since 2001 with his non-profit group Whale Release and Strandings based in Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s, N.L., west of St. John’s. Fisheries and Oceans says it contributed $60,500 to the group last year and Ledwell hopes to land this year’s contract as well.
Fishing gear is still a major threat to humpback whales in particular because of their size and high numbers, he said during an interview in his home office. By his side was the “whale phone” which rings in emergencies.
Over the years Ledwell and his wife, Julie Huntington, have responded to calls from around the province and its 17,000 kilometres of coastline. They’ve helped free everything from endangered humpbacks to minke whales, leatherback sea turtles, basking sharks and a host of other creatures in need.
Ledwell said every effort is made to save marine life but also preserve the gill nets, snow crab pots, box traps and other equipment belonging to cash-strapped fishing communities.
“Sometimes the whale is caught up and there’s just so much gear on, you have no idea how to get it out when you start.
“And this whale is looking at you while you’re at. You can follow its eyes. It’s watching you. And then at the last of it, it’s almost like the whale is … giving you its tail, saying: ‘I’m going. I’m out of here. Just do this right now, and I’m gone.’”
Ledwell said some cases are easier to solve than others.
“Some of them are aggressive, like you’d think a wild animal would be. Some of them are not aggressive at all,” he said.
Ledwell heads out in an inflatable Zodiac boat equipped with all manner of cutting and release tools. His methods are based on those pioneered by Jon Lien, the late marine scientist known as “the whale man” who founded Memorial University of Newfoundland’s Whale Research Group.
“You’re thinking that this whale could do anything,” he said. “There have been some little incidents but, with all the whales that have been down here, no one has ever been hurt by a humpback.”
Sean Todd is director of Allied Whale, the College of the Atlantic’s marine mammal research group in Bar Harbor, Maine.
He has helped free tangled whales in U.S. waters and off Newfoundland. Entrapment speaks to the wider issue of declining ocean health and it deserves more government recognition and funding, he said in an interview.
“We don’t go out there with our nets trying to catch whales. But we’re using the ocean, whales are using the ocean and we end up causing, inadvertently, these entanglements,” Todd said.
“These whales can suffer for months from the wounds caused by fishing gear. So, to a degree, we’re responsible for this.”