Marine Animal Entanglement Response Team frees a whale named Wart Saturday

New technique maximizes safety for rescuers and the whale


   Above, the left side of the head of right whale 1140 known as Wart, on Saturday, after the wrap of rope was removed. Vertical line on whales upper jaw is from the rope impression/injury caused by the entanglement. Rough patches of skin are natural callosities used to identify individual right whales. PCCS image, NOAA permit 932-1905.

On Saturday afternoon, the Marine Animal Entanglement Response Team with the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies successfully cut rope from a right whale using a new technique that maximized safety for rescuers and the whale.

The whale, a mature female nicknamed “Wart” was first found to be entangled in March, 2008, with long lengths of rope in her mouth and a dangerous wrap of rope around her upper jaw. Since that time, a number of rescue operations were launched, but the whale always evaded these attempts. The MAER team cut the most dangerous part of the whale’s entanglement using a rope-cutting arrow delivered by crossbow. The rope wrapping her upper jaw was cut without injury to the whale and the remaining rope will likely be shed over time.

“There is always a chance that our intervention could complicate anentanglement, we needed a way of reducing risk to her and to us.” - Scott Landry, director of the response team

The whale was spotted by a NOAA aerial survey team during a routine survey in the Great South Channel, about 15-miles east of Nauset Light, Cape Cod.  She was feeding in the vicinity of other whales. The PCCS team was already on the water and with the NOAA team directing them to the animal, responded to the call immediately.

Wart’s entanglement consisted of rope woven through the baleen (plates of which hang from the upper jaw to filter food from the water) and over her upper jaw.  Cutting the rope over her upper jaw will allow the remaining rope to be pulled from her mouth over time. “Her entanglement has been troubling for us for quite a while,” said Scott Landry, director of the response program.  “There is always a chance that our intervention could complicate an entanglement, we needed a way of reducing risk to her and to us,” he adds, “We have watched a number of right whales decline and die with similar entanglements, it is dangerous and difficult to remove rope from the upper jaws of these animals because they are free-swimming, despite their entanglements, and they can change direction and dive quickly. The arrow allowed us to resolve this entanglement without having to approach her too closely” Landry said.

The technique was developed in partnership with PCCS and NOAA and may help future entanglements that cannot be resolved with more traditional disentanglement methods.

North Atlantic right whales remain on the Endangered Species List and the population, which numbers less than 450 individuals, has not yet recovered despite protection from hunting since 1935. Human-caused mortalities, vessel strikes and entanglements in commercial fishing gear, add significantly to the death rate for right whales in this population. Entanglement affects the majority of the population with 75 percent of North Atlantic right whales exhibiting scars from a previous entanglement. Although efforts to reduce entanglement are still in progress, measures taken have not yet achieved the Zero Mortality Rate Goal set by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. North Atlantic right whales have a low reproductive rate so the loss of breeding females is a critical problem for this species which typically give birth once every three to five years and produce an average of 5.25 calves in their lifetime.

The Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies is a non-profit organization, established in 1976 dedicated to preserving and protecting marine mammals and ecosystems in the Gulf of Maine and beyond through applied research, education, public policy initiatives and management strategies.  The Marine Animal Entanglement Response Program coordinates whale rescue efforts along southeastern New England under a federal permit and grants issued by NOAA.  To learn more about our work and our results, visit us at www.coastalstudies.org.

Courtesy of PCCS.

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