Experts Report Increase in Successful Entanglements of Humpback Whales During Whale Watching Season

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Researchers are moving from data collection to analysis as the whale watching season draws to a close.

While the reported whale counts weren’t out of the norm, experts say the number of successful humpback whale entanglements stood out. With an average release of two whales a year, Ed Lyman of the Hawaiian Islands National Humpback Whale Marine Sanctuary said the organization had received nine reports of entanglements and responses had been made to five of them. between them.

The tight winding of the line and the large bundle of marine debris around the head of the mother humpback whale in February 2022. (Image credit: M. Lammers/NOAA MMHSRP Permit # 18786-06)

The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary coordinates the community-based Hawaiian Islands large whale entanglement response network. The network is part of the larger Pacific Islands Marine Mammal Response Network led by the Pacific Islands Regional Office of NOAA Fisheries.

The network depends on the commitment of numerous state and federal agencies, including the State of Hawaii’s Department of Lands and Natural Resources, NOAA’s Pacific Islands Regional Office, the Office of the law of NOAA and the US Coast Guard, non-governmental organizations, fishers, researchers and other members of the maritime community working together.

While all five whales had gear removed from their bodies, three of them were completely untangled, including a mother whale traveling with her calf.

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“Its survival was tied to the calf’s survival,” he said. “By helping the mother, we are helping the calf.”

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Lyman said the number of whales in distress reported fluctuates based on sightings and the number of people reporting these entanglements. “You’re not going to find them all in the first place.”

The sanctuary and its partners have made 13 to 14 dedicated trips to help the endangered whales, including the five entangled animals.

The NOAA response team uses a long pole with a specially designed knife on the end to cut the husk around the head of the mother humpback whale
(Image credit: M. Lammers/NOAA MMHSRP Permit # 18786-06)

Lyman said the sanctuary and its partners respond to whales that are compromised, not just entanglements. On Sunday, March 27, responders went in search of a calf injured following a collision with a boat.

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Lyman credits the significant success of this year’s disentanglements to a community on the water willing to help by reporting incidents and staying with the whales until responders can arrive. In addition, the equipment is improving with sharper knives, longer poles and cameras at the end of the poles as well as more trained people to help with interventions.

“We are doing a great job. Hawaii should be very proud,” Lyman said.

As the number of humpback whales in the area dwindles, Lyman said they will likely see whales until May, but they will be rare.

Cindy Among-Serrao, Hawaii Island Program Coordinator for the sanctuary, only site officials were allowed to assist with whale counts. This month marked the first time since the COVID-19 outbreak that volunteers were allowed to help.

The tally of events included 87 site managers in January and 81 in February. This month, however, there were 241 site managers and volunteers with 136 sightings reported between 10 a.m. and 10:15 a.m., fewer than the previous two counts.

“March is usually a month when whale sightings are low,” Among-Serrao said, adding that despite the fact the reported numbers were decent. Although there have been more volunteers, she said that doesn’t mean more whale sightings.

Serrao said counting is important because it’s nice to see where whales are seen to let boaters and recreators know where they are, as calves can be susceptible to ship strikes.

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