admin's picture

By Valerie Monson

WAILUKU, Maui (The Maui News, March 9) - Another dramatic rescue of a humpback whale entangled in rope in Hawaii waters has underlined the growing concern over ocean debris and lost fishing lines that take the lives of an estimated 300,000 marine mammals around the world each year.

"We can keep going out and saving these animals or we can cut to the source and not even have the risk of entanglement," said Wende Goo of the Fisheries Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

It was the second time in three weeks that a team has been called out to free a whale in distress in Maui County waters. On Sunday, a 45-foot female off Olowalu – on the northwest coast of the island of Maui – was cut loose from 100 pounds of rope caught on her tail. That followed the February 12 rescue of a male off the island of Lanai – east of Maui – that was twisted up in fishing gear.

Both animals were given another chance at life by the Hawaiian Islands Whale Disentanglement Network, a group of trained experts including Dave Mattila and Ed Lyman, who sliced the ropes after slowing the whales down.

"Ultimately, we need to prevent this," said Mattila.

Since December, five whales have been spotted around Hawai`i with life-threatening entanglements. The fate of the other three mammals is not known. Porpoises, dolphins, monk seals and coral reefs also become victims of discarded fishing gear or other debris.

Rusty Brainard, chief of NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, said the problem won’t be solved without an international effort. Although it’s illegal to dump fishing gear at sea, perpetrators often don’t get caught and, so far, there hasn’t been much of an emphasis on enforcement.

"There needs to be the political will to implement these things," said Brainard. "Some amount of gear is purposely discarded. There’s an economic decision that says it’s easier to discard at sea rather than take it back to shore."

While any kind of debris can get twisted around a marine mammal, Brainard said a good portion of the ditched fishing gear comes from bottom trolling that takes place around the Pacific Rim, not in Hawai`i. Brainard said the ocean floor around Hawai`i is too rough and steep for that kind of fishing, which occurs on shelf areas off the coasts of both North America and Asia.

Prevailing ocean currents in the North Pacific sweep the clutter of debris toward Hawai`i where it catches the whales here or while they’re swimming south from Alaska.

But there’s plenty of blame to be spread around.

"It’s not just bottom trolling; there are other maritime sources that use ropes and lines and recreational users, too," said Brainard. "Everybody is a little part of the problem."

Entanglements of mammals at sea also have increased since the 1950s with advances in technology, particularly the use of plastics in rope and gear. Previously, ropes and lines were made out of natural fibers that disintegrated in the water much faster than the tough synthetics that can last for decades.

"Economically, the synthetic gear has taken over, they’re much more cost effective," said Brainard.

Mattila said the female humpback that was freed most recently had been sighted off the Big Island five weeks ago. On Sunday, a research team with the Dolphin Institute, a nonprofit organization, saw the mammal about a mile off Olowalu and stayed with her until response vessels from the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary arrived.

With the massive wad of rope trailing the knot around her tail, the whale had lost perhaps 10 tons from a normal adult weight of 45 tons. Mattila said she also had a deep gash on her tail from the rope digging into her and the lower portion of her body was covered with a type of lice that attacks whales in poor health.

Even after the rescue, there was no guarantee she would survive.

"She’s got a lot of healing to do," said Mattila. "But she’s got a lot better chance than she did."

Despite her obvious weakness, the whale put up a battle with Mattila and Lyman, who were trailing her in their inflatable craft. Once the two had gotten close enough to attach buoys to the thick clumps of rope and pin a grappling hook near the tail, the humpback took the men on a three-hour sleigh ride before wearing down to the point that they could cut her loose.

"She wasn’t lacking in energy," said Mattila. "There were moments when we were just hanging on and getting sprayed."

Mattila said he and Lyman would love to have this part of their job description eliminated when there is no longer a need for these kinds of rescues. But they realize that won’t happen anytime soon.

"There needs to be a major campaign to get people to quit throwing debris in the ocean," he said. "Accidental entanglement is the single largest human-caused mortality of marine animals."

Brainard said 544 tons of debris has been removed from reefs and beaches in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands over the past 10 years, thanks to a multi-agency effort. That’s believed to be about 60 percent of the total amount of ocean trash in that area. The cleanup effort has begun in the main Hawaiian Islands after aerial surveys identified debris off of the Big Island and Kauai. Surveys of near-shore waters off Maui eventually will take place.

In the long run, Brainard said the debris should be removed when it’s still farther out at sea, before it gets close enough to impact reefs and near-shore animal life.

March 10, 2006

The Maui News: 

Rate this article: 
No votes yet

Add new comment