By Pete Thomas
The next time you enjoy a plate of steaming Dungeness crab, consider the plight of a young humpback whale that was rescued Sunday off San Clemente, Calif.
The 25-foot juvenile whale had become entangled, perhaps several weeks ago or longer, in crab-fishing gear from Washington State. Ropes attached to floats were wrapped tightly around the base of the whale’s tail fluke, and around parts of its upper body, including its mouth.
The mammal carried the gear more than 1,200 miles, and it remains unclear how effectively the whale was able to feed.
The first attempt to rescue the whale occurred late Saturday off Palos Verdes in Los Angeles County. A disentanglement team from Marine Animal Rescue attached a telemetry buoy, but could not remove the gear before darkness fell.
The telemetry buoy enabled rescue teams, in an effort led by Justin Viezbicke of NOAA Fisheries, to locate the whale Sunday morning off San Clemente, in south Orange County.
Units from the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, SeaWorld, and Marine Animal Rescue worked for several hours, according to those monitoring the rescue effort, before the whale swam away with only a single line trailing its mouth.
Viezbicke, California Stranding Network Coordinator for NOAA Fisheries, had not responded to a request for a statement at the time of this post.
However, Viezbicke told the Orange County Register: “The prognosis is guarded. It will depend how the remaining line affects [the whale's] foraging.”
Last year there were 71 reported cases of entangled whales off the U.S. West Coast (54 were humpback whales). It was the highest annual total since NOAA Fisheries began keeping records in 1982. Of the 71 reported entanglements, 48 were confirmed by NOAA.
Last year, according to NOAA Fisheries, there was a sharp increase in the number of entanglements associated with the Dungeness crab fishery. However, entanglements also involve gillnets, spot prawn-fishing gear, sablefish trap gear and lobster trap gear.
–Top photo is a generic humpback whale fluke, by ©Pete Thomas; second image shows the entangled humpback whale Saturday off Palos Verdes, by ©Erik Combs/Harbor Breeze Cruises.