Members of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Large Whale Entanglement Response program are headed to Crescent City today to help a humpback whale that’s wrapped in multiple types of fishing gear about 2.3 miles west of Battery Point.
The fishing gear may be impeding the whale’s movements, keeping it within a small area, said Justin Viezbicke, stranding coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries Service. The National Marine Fisheries Service received the first report of the entangled humpback whale on Thursday, he said.
“Obviously the concern around this animal is it’s been entangled for a period of time already and it’s in a situation where it really can’t go anywhere,” Viezbicke said Monday. “We’re hoping to get out there tomorrow or the next day to see if we can effect some change on this whale.”
Since NOAA scientists have only been able to view aerial photos of the whale, it’s difficult to tell its size or age, Viezbicke said. The most recent photos were taken from a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter on Sunday.
“We can’t see the entire whale because it can’t fully surface,” Viezbicke said.
Two people from the Large Whale Entanglement Response program will travel to Crescent City from Monterey, Viezbicke said. They will work with Jeff Jacobsen, an associate faculty member at Humboldt State University, and Dr. Dennis Wood, executive director of the Northcoast Marine Mammal Center and a level 3 disentangler.
Once they’re in Crescent City, whale disentanglers will use drones to assess the humpback’s situation, determining if it’s in a life-threatening situation, where it’s at and whether it’s safe for the crew to respond, Viezbicke said.
The crew will work from head to tail using long poles with knives and other tools to try to remove the gear with as few cuts as possible, Viezbicke said. The crew want to minimize the number of times and amount of time it is close to the whale, he said.
“We want to figure out (if) there’s a spot on this line where we can cut it one time and it will just unwind and come apart,” he said.
The reason NOAA’s response to this whale has been delayed is due to the death of a whale disentangler who died last week during a rescue operation in Canada, Viezbicke said. The entire entanglement response team has been suspended while its protocol and safety measures are being reviewed, he said.
“Our hope is by tomorrow we will have the clearance to go back out,” Viezbicke said.
In the last two years, Large Whale Entanglement Response teams have been busy. Viezbicke said crews have responded to 48 entanglements this year and 49 entanglements last year.
He pointed out that responding to whale entanglements is really a band-aid for a bigger issue.
“We’re not able to save every single animal that gets entangled,” Viezbicke said. “We’re trying to learn how these animals are getting entangled, to work with fishermen to try to be more preventative in the future.”