The fact is whales get tangled in fishing gear.
Whether whales are in search of food, migrating or are just curious, these animals can become entangled. The rope or net of the gear can get wrapped around their head, flippers or tail. When they become entangled they can also end up dragging along a trap or pot or worse, become anchored to the ocean bottom.
Entanglements can cause injury, drowning or a slow painful death. This is one of the leading threats to whales around the world. Even though it is far from what fish harvesters intend, it is also a frequent occurrence in Newfoundland and Labrador waters.
In response to this problem — for whales and fishers alike — are whale disentanglers, such as Julie Huntington. Both Julie and her husband were presented with the Tuck Walters Environmental Award earlier this year for their dedication to wildlife conservation through their work with the Whale Release and Strandings Group.
The Canadian Wildlife Federation sat down with Julie to get her take on disentangling whales in Newfoundland and Labrador.
CWF: How did whale disentanglement start in Newfoundland and Labrador?
Julie: It started with Dr. Jon Lien. Dr. Lien was an animal behaviouralist at Memorial University working on whales in Newfoundland in the late 1970s.
He had been called up by a few local fishermen because a whale was entangled in their cod trap.
People associated Dr. Lien with all things whale. These fishermen hoped Dr. Lien could help them with this entangled whale incident.
Dr. Lien had never disentangled whales from fishing gear before. But he did recognize the need to address the animal’s welfare and the impact on fishers. This was the start of whale disentanglement in Newfoundland. It was also the first of its kind in the world!
CWF: When did you get started?
I started in the late ’80s. Dr. Lien called me up asking if I wanted a job disentangling whales. Previous to moving to Newfoundland, I had fished in Northern Australia, made prawn trawling gear, and sold fishing boats and licenses. I was comfortable working on boats and familiar with fishing gear.
CWF: How does your organization fit in?
Julie: A marine animal release program has operated in Newfoundland since 1979. In the early days of the disentanglement work, the program was led by Memorial University of Newfoundland’s Whale Research Group. Since 2001, the Whale Release and Strandings Group has run the program ever since; responding to whales, Leatherback sea turtles and basking sharks entrapped in fishing gear, ice entrapped or stranded on the shoreline. It is a marine animal release and fishers’ assistance program.
Dr. Lien started this program almost 40 years ago. We’ve pioneered the disentanglement techniques, tools and practices that have been copied and implemented all over the world. I manage WRS with my husband, Wayne Ledwell, who operates in a team to release entangled whales from fishing gear.
CWF: What is the most important thing to remember about disentanglement practices?
Julie: A disentanglement release can be done safely but it takes a community. It’s not just the WRS disentanglement team releasing the animal. It also includes the fishermen and their knowledge of the gear, the disentanglers’ experience as well as the community where the incident occurs. It’s a collaborative effort. You can’t be a cowboy — don’t do it alone.
CWF: What should the public be aware of regarding whale disentanglement?
Julie: Disentangling a distressed animal of that size is dangerous. It is a skilled and specialized job. The public should be aware that they shouldn’t attempt to do it. It takes hands-on experience. They may not know the gear and won’t realize how much of the gear is not seen from the surface of the water.
For the concern of human and animal safety, make sure to call your local marine animal response agency or DFO to alert them to these incidents.
Disentanglements can be dangerous, and improperly executed responses can endanger humans and cause more harm to the animal, due to increased distress or worsened entanglement.
CWF: What is the greatest limiting factor for successful disentanglements in NL?
The weather is always a challenge. If you don’t have the weather, you can’t do it. Also taken into account are sea state, daylight and the distance from shore.
CWF: What is the most significant or difficult disentanglement you’ve ever done?
They all are! Every single one. Each incident is equally important and each disentanglement is unique. The weather conditions, whale behaviour, location and entanglement configuration make disentanglement incidents challenging, but rewarding.
Since 1979, over 1,350 whales have been reported to WRS as entangled or entrapped in fishing gear off the NL coast. I’ve been involved in hundreds of them.
Disentanglement is an ongoing problem in Canadian waters.
It is the dedicated people like Julie Huntington that contribute to resolving this issue: the animals released, decreasing the downtime and damage to fisher’s gear, and the contribution to science about these incidents and marine animals that can help prevent future entanglements from occurring.
Julie concluded the interview with this:
“Education is important. It will take all of us to figure out this problem. But for now, it takes a few dedicated people to go out and do it. Any day of the week, on their weekends or holidays they go out and get the whale out as soon and as safely as possible and get the fishermen fishing again.”