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Researchers report uptick in whale entanglements in Washington waters

Photo of entangled whale found 20 miles of Washington coast in early May. (Photo provided by: SR3 and Cascadia Research Collective)

WASHINGTON -- Researchers are trying to figure out what’s causing an uptick in the number of whale entanglements in Washington waters.

4 whale entanglements have been reported in Washington waters since mid-April. That’s usually the amount seen over an entire year, researchers tell KOMO News.

Last week, John Calambokidis and other highly-trained responders put in hours of work to try to free a young grey whale found 20 miles off the Washington coast. The whale was entangled in fishing gear.

An alert ferry captain spotted the gray whale with fishing gear trailing behind it on Friday, according to the Cascadia Research Collective. The U.S. Coast Guard help locate the whale. NOAA Fisheries activated its Large Whale Entanglement Response Network, which is made up of highly-trained responders including a team from Sea Life Response, Rehabilitation and Research (SR3), and Cascadia Research Collective, the Collective reported.

"It was pretty severely entangled and had multiple wraps around the tail, where the fluke is. And some of those were pretty deeply imbedded. And also, they were still anchored to pots and weights down below. So, they were kind of pinning that portion that was entangled about 20 feet under water," said Calambokidis, Senior Research Biologist for the Cascadia Research Collective.

The whale's chest cavity was inflated with air, which prevented it from diving normally, Calambokidis told KOMO News.

The group cut away some of the deep gear that had likely pinned the whale down for weeks and removed some of the traps around it, he added.

Sadly, survival isn't guaranteed.

"It was trapped at the surface by the air and held down below… to weights down below, so it was trapped between these two extremes. Putting it into a pretty unusual body shape," he said. "We feel like we did give the animal a potential opportunity to recover. Not as much as we would have liked. We’re not optimistic about this animal."

The whale is one of four whales entangled in fishing gear in Washington waters since April 13. Three of the whales were gray whales. The other whale was a humpback.

Statistics show about a handful of whale entanglements are seen in Washington and Oregon waters over the course of an entire year, Calambokidis said. Five cases were reported in Washington and Oregon waters in all of 2014; four cases were reported in 2015; two cases were reported in 2016; and four cases were reported in 2017.

Several theories could explain the uptick, Calambokidis said. The humpback whale population has been expanding into new areas as its population recovers. It also appears grey whales are searching for food in areas further south than they typically migrate.

"I think the important thing to realize, too, is given how inaccessible our off-shore waters are, these reports likely represent a very small fracture of the true number occurring," Calambokidis said.

All of the recent cases involved Dungeness crab gear, researchers tell KOMO News.

But the industry is already working on ways to help prevent future entanglements.

"It’s very important for people to understand that these whales can be quite unpredictable and quite dangerous. So, reporting is very important," said Lynne Barre, NOAA Fisheries. "One of the primary functions of our entanglement network is not just to rescue these individual whales, but to learn about how they’re getting entangled and what the risk of that fishing gear is. So, then we can work with fishing industries to reduce that impact."

To report an entangled whale in Washington and Oregon, you can call the NOAA Fisheries entanglement reporting hotline at 1-877-SOS-WHALE (1-877-767-9425).

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