Grey whale saved from entanglement may belong to endangered population

Fisheries and Oceans Canada says a grey whale that was reported caught in a fishing net in Nootka Sound last week has been freed after several days of effort.

Paul Cottrell, marine mammal coordinator for the DFO, tells CTV News Vancouver Island the first call about the whale came in on July 27 from the group of First Nations fishers in whose gear the animal got tangled.

"It broke away and it had at least 60 feet of gill net on it," Cottrell says. "We had a team out looking, but we weren't able to locate it until we got another report a couple days ago."

The whale, still trailing the gear, had moved up to Esperanza Inlet, where it was spotted by a recreational fisherman.

Cottrell says a nearby DFO crew was able to attach a satellite tag buoy to the debris trailing the whale and begin removing some of the net, but they couldn't get all of it.

The next day, the whale went out to sea.

"He went 20, 30 miles offshore, so we couldn't get him," Cottrell says. "Luckily, he came in shore on Saturday, so that was yesterday, and so we went out and had a team ready to go."

Cottrell says the grey whale is quite young, possibly only a couple of years old. He says the whale is about 26 feet long and may actually be too young to have been identified and named in DFO's tracking system.

Crews located the whale using the latest satellite ping and a drone, encountering the animal even farther north, off of Brooks Peninsula.

"We were able to work with the whale," Cottrell says. "It was about four hours. It was a bad one."

He says he had to make 10 different cuts in the gear - which he described as "a mass of meshes and corks and lead line" stuck around the animal's tail - to free the whale.

Drone video of the effort shared with CTV News shows the whale thrashing and rolling to break free of the gear, as crews hold onto the net and use poles to loosen and cut it. Eventually, the animal breaks free, and can be seen swimming away without any fishing gear left stuck to it.

The drone not only helped document the rescue, it also served a bigger purpose.

It allowed the team to observe the animal from afar to know when to disengage when it became distressed, and also helped them strategize where to cut the netting.

The rescue effort took about four hours.

"We were all exhausted, but it's so nice to actually have an endgame and actually have the drone show that all the gear's off," Cottrell says. "Usually it takes, you know, a couple weeks for us to verify because the whale takes off so fast."

Andrew Trites with UBC’s Institute for Oceans and Fisheries says he was relieved to learn the mammal was freed.

“Getting entangled in this sort of gear is really the kiss of death for the animal. The ropes, eventually cut in deep into their skin, it causes infection and the animals use a lot more energy trying to swim. They can’t drive properly to feed. And so they end up experiencing a slow, and I think, excruciating death,” Trites says.

He also suspects the whale may belong to a subset of grey whales, with a population of about 200, that is considered endangered.

“For this time of the year, July and August, to have a grey whale off the coast of B.C. suggests it might be part of this endangered feeding group. In which case, saving it is extremely important to help support the population,” Trites says.

He says these entanglements do happen, but the majority of the time, the mammals don’t get saved because it doesn’t get reported fast enough and officials don’t know where to look.

Cottrell echoes this sentiment and says it was critical that multiple people had called it in, including the fishery.

“They’re our eyes and ears out there. It makes us successful by telling us a real time and then we can send a response team,” he says.

He encourages the public to continue reporting sightings of mammals in distress at 1-800-465-4336.