A humpback whale found entangled in fishing gear was mostly freed Sunday after a group of rescuers tracked it down and cut it free.
Justin Viezbicke, a marine mammal stranding coordinator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), told KPCC that the whale still has severe wounds and some gear trailing out of its mouth. A group of rescuers led by NOAA cut the line as short as they could and hope the animal will be able to shake it off over time.
“There’s definitely a guarded prognosis for this one, because with that in its mouth, there is the potential that that could affect its ability to forage, and if that’s the case then this whale’s not going to have a very good time,” Viezbicke said.
The whale was first spotted Saturday near the Palos Verdes Peninsula, where rescuers attached a tracking device. Mid-morning the next day, the team reached the whale and began working to slow it down.
“It was diving and moving all over and wasn’t really on a steady course. It was kind of erratic turns, and making it really difficult for us to follow the whale,” Viezbicke said. Rescuers attached floats to keep the whale closer to the surface and to slow it down.
When they approached the whale, the team used a “flying knife” attached to a long pole and cut off the fishing gear attached to the whale’s body.
Viezbicke said mouth entanglements pose a challenge because it’s difficult to get whales to open their mouths and release the gear.
“We’ve done pretty much all that we can,” Viezbicke said. There is a deep cut on the whale’s tail that may also still have some line embedded in it. “We’re still trying to determine if there’s more in there, or if it’s just reacting to having all of that gear finally getting off.”
The rescuers removed their tracking device, so they plan to wait and see if the whale is spotted again to determine what has happened to it since Sunday.
Shortly after the rescuers cut the majority of the gear off of the whale, NOAA received reports of a second entangled whale near Dana Point. The whale watching group that spotted it sent photos to NOAA — and Viezbicke said it's the same whale they'd freed earlier that day. NOAA will be reviewing the photos to try to determine whether there is still some line on the whale’s tail.
Viezbicke and experts say entanglement in fishing gear is a major problem for local whale populations — for the last two years, NOAA has seen close to 50 entanglements off of California annually. This year, the group has tracked nearly 25.
Viezbicke also said that while rescue groups are helpful for aiding entangled whales, they’re treating the symptoms of a problem rather than the cause.
“It really is the Band-Aid. We’re really not the solution,” Viezbicke said. “The solution is working with fishermen and the industry to try to figure out ways to be more preventative in nature.”