Whale Rescue

Humans have long been responding to animals in distress and that certainly describes a whale entangled in fishing gear, be it lines or nets. Entanglements can be fatal for right whales. Between 1986 and 2006, 39 right whale carcasses were necropsied along the eastern seaboard of Canada and the United States. Of those, at least six were determine to have died from entanglement in fishing gear. Twelve other right whales last seen entangled and in poor health have not been seen since. An examination of photographs has shown that 75% of known right whales have been entangled at least once 1 . Although many entangled right whales are eventually able to shed the gear, some suffer a slow and painful death as entangling lines slice into their skin and bone, this is especially true of fishing lines wrapped around the flipper of a still growing juveniles.

a) Aerial view of a North Atlantic right whale showing white entanglement scars on the peduncle (tail stock) and flukes. b) Piper was first seen in 1993 and at the time was already at least two years old. She had been entangled twice in a 12-year period, but was seen in April 2005 free of gear.
In an attempt to disentangle right whales, emergency networks have been established throughout the range of the right whale along the east coast of Canada and the United States. The response to an entangled whale by network members is coordinated by the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies who provides logistic and financial support to disentanglement efforts. To release whales from fishing gear, trained rescue teams use a combination of old whaling methods to slow down the whales (kegging, attaching floats to trailing lines on the whale), and modern technologies to track them (satellite telemetry). But even with extensive efforts, sometimes over a period of months, rescuers are only successful at freeing about 50% of entangled right whales. Many more entangled right whales go unreported. Measures to prevent right whales from becoming entangled in the first place such as area closures, sinking ground lines, weak links and others have been implemented in some areas of the United States, but not across the complete range of species.

Contact information of the emergency networks in Canada can be found on the Emergency page.


Dr. Jon Lien from the Whale Research Group at Memorial University in Newfoundland begins to respond to humpbacks entangled in cod traps.
The Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies in Massachusetts starts to disentangle large whales.
Establishment of the Nova Scotia Stranding Network, now known as the Marine Animal Response Society (MARS) in Nova Scotia.
Disentanglement Network is established in the United States.
The Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, United States Coast Guard and other agencies develop a "Rapid Response Program" to respond to offshore or hard to reach right whales in distress.
1999 and 2000
Caches of equipment needed to disentangle right whales are situated in strategic locations around the Bay of Fundy. Training sessions for responders in Canada begins.
The Campobello Whale Rescue Team begins responding to and rescuing entangled whales in association with the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, the New England Aquarium, the Grand Manan Whale & Seabird Research Station, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM) establishes the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in association with the Biodôme de Montréal, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Parks Canada, the Parc Aquarium du Québec, the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals, the Mingan Island Cetacean Study, the Réseau d’observation des mammifères marins, the Centre Québécois pour la santé des animaux sauvages and the St. Lawrence National Institute of Ecotoxicology.
Funding received from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and IFAW by MARS to hold a workshop to develop a Maritime-wide marine animal response network and to train volunteers in the assessment and handling of small marine mammals.

1 Knowlton, A. R., M. K. Marx, H. M. Pettis, P. K. Hamilton, and S. D. Kraus. 2005. Analysis of scarring on North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis): Monitoring rates of entanglement interaction: 1980-2002. Final Report to the National Marine Fisheries Service. 20 pp.

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