Canada: Right whale trapped in fishing gear off N.S.

10th Jul 2002 Story: www.thestar.com

An endangered North Atlantic right whale was entangled in a mess of fishing gear off the Nova Scotia coast just as many of the mammals were beginning their annual trek into Canadian waters.

The whale was thought to be somewhere off Briar Island, struggling in a tangle of what was believed to be fishing line, with an orange buoy cinched around its tail.

It wasn't clear today where the massive mammal travelled to after it moved quickly away from a throng of whale-watching vessels that spotted it on the weekend.

Deborah Tobin, who surveys whales in the Bay of Fundy, saw the animal Saturday after being alerted to it by a tour operator. She said the whale appeared to not be a mature adult and was on its own.

"The gear was wrapped around the tail, but it definitely rubbed its way well into the tail," she said from her research office near Digby, N.S.

"It looked quite roughed up. I think it will be a fairly difficult disentanglement."

The Canadian Coast Guard travelled to the site Saturday, but could do little to help the whale and no longer knows where it is. An official with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans said it would have to wait for another sighting before taking any action.

A team of American disentanglement experts was on standby to come to the area near the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, if a rescue could be launched. The concern is that the line might grow into the young whale's flesh and cause an infection, which can be fatal if not treated.

Researchers are closely watching the progress of the whales, who make an annual trek from their birthing grounds off Florida and Georgia into the bay where they feed on rich supplies of plankton.

They're hoping to stave off any more deaths of the marine giants, whose fragile population has been reduced to only 300 worldwide.

American officials recently put in place a two-week restriction in fishing zones off Cape Cod that will prevent the use of gill nets and lobster-trap gear that can entangle the whales on their journey north. About 75 whales are clustered off Cape Cod, where it's believed they're delaying their move into the bay because of plentiful food supplies in U.S. waters.

Researchers in the Bay of Fundy have also set up a tracking system that will alert vessels and whale-watching operations of right whales in the area to prevent ship strikes, one of the biggest killers of the whales who lumber along slowly and can't get out of the way of massive bulk carriers.

Scientists suspect a whale calf died earlier this year shortly after it was born when it was hit by a ship in the States.

The whales also have to contend with seas laced with lethal fishing line that gets wrapped around their fins and mouths, leaving them unable to eat or swim properly.

Experts are hoping an apparent rise in birthing numbers will bring the species back from the brink of extinction. Around 20 calves were born this year, down from the 30 produced last year. But the rate is significantly higher than in previous years, which saw only single digits born on average.

"These are fairly good numbers when you compare them to previous years," said Jerry Conway, with Fisheries and Oceans.

American and Canadian scientists tried for months last year to free a North Atlantic right whale from a tangle of fishing line as it struggled off Nova Scotia. The whale, dubbed Churchill, was thought to have died.