One of the three humpback whales entangled in fishing gear off the coast of British Columbia is now free, although the two other animals have not been located.
Rescue teams were able to confirm late Thursday using drones that the humpback named Checkmate was free of fishing gear, said Paul Cottrell, the Pacific marine mammals co-ordinator for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
“We are over the moon. When we were able to get the drone out there and confirm that — we were so happy,” he said Friday.
“These animals are very acrobatic and aerial too. So, it might have dislodged while breaching or doing some aerial activities.”
The whale had a trap and line running through its mouth and rescuers had found that someone had cut off the buoy making it difficult to spot the animal.
The gear was wrapped close to Checkmate’s body, Cottrell said.
Rescuers believe the whale got entangled when it was foraging.
It is likely that a line went through the humpback’s mouth and baleen, which is the filter it uses to get food, he said. It is also possible that the line did not have any knots, which made it easier to slip off, he added.
“That’s always a danger if it gets caught up in the baleen that the animal can’t feed. That’s usually a death sentence.”
Martin Haulena, head veterinarian at the Ocean Wise Marine Mammal Centre and the Vancouver Aquarium, said this whale was lucky to get free of the entanglement.
“It’s not something that happens with every case. That’s for sure.”
Rescuers have yet to locate and confirm the condition of the two other whales that are also entangled in fishing gear.
Cottrell said rescuers were able to get about 60 metres of fishing line off one of the whales named X-ray but haven’t been able to locate it to check on its welfare for about a month. It was last seen travelling north along the east coast of Vancouver Island.
A yet-to-be-named whale, which has a fishing net over its head and was last seen on the central coast about a month ago hasn’t been located either.
There may be another humpback that is entangled in fishing gear, although it is yet to be confirmed. Marine mammal specialists along with whale rescue groups are out looking for it, he said.
While looking for the entangled whales, Cottrell said he saw several other humpbacks, which is good news.
“The downside is that we have a lot of fishing gear and, you know, traps and things in the water and any vertical or horizontal line in the water is a potential entanglement.”
The department is working with industry and academics to improve the way fishers use gear. Hopefully there will be fewer lines in the water over the next few years, he said.
“It’s really important to minimize those entanglements.”