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December, 2009:

Whales and Nets

Humpback Whale by Big Blue Ocean via Flickr

Humpback Whale by Big Blue Ocean via Flickr

While I was on Oahu last month, I took a tour with Oahu Nature Tours. The guide mentioned a friend of his who’d been out in the waters around the Northwest Hawaiian Islands collecting abandoned nets. This recent story in from the AP illustrates how critical it is to manage all the  marine garbage that’s choking the waters around the islands.

A juvenile humpback whale entangled in hundreds of feet of heavy rope off the Hawaii coast was being tracked by marine experts Wednesday.

“The entanglement is life-threatening,” said Ed Lyman, marine mammal response manager for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. “It’s in the mouth, and it’s over the body. It’s yellow, polypropylene line, pretty heavy gauge, and it’s several hundred feet of line on the animal.”

Humpback whales migrate to warm Hawaiian waters every winter to give birth — it’s a common though still amazing site to see them in the Maui channel, slapping their fins, breaching the waters, eyeing the tour boats. On a snorkel tour off Maui some years back we watched a junior whale — about the size of the boat we were on — breach and fall, breach and fall.  His mother just surfaced beside him, a long slow expanse of shiny black and gray, and then, she was gone.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, around 1000 whales are killed every year in fishing gear. Hawaii based efforts to gather and recyle abandoned nets are underway, but it’s clearly not happening fast enough. Hopefully, rescue efforts to cut youngster free will be successful, though the great tragedy is that once he’s good to go, there’s no guarantee he won’t swim right into another potentially lethal web of abandoned heavy duty nylon.

Update from the LA Times:

The good news, Lyman added, is that the whale was relocated and another transmitter package was placed on the mammal, and it appeared to be trailing significantly less line than before, thanks to grapple efforts during the previous rescue attempt.

The bad news was that the line was still wrapped around the whale’s head. Another attempt to free the whale will occur today, conditions permitting.