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Update on the entangled Forth humpback whale, April 2019

This post was written by Ellie MacLennan, SEA project co-ordinator.

On Tuesday 26th February a commercial fisherman working in the Forth contacted the Scottish Entanglement Alliance (SEA), concerned for the welfare of a humpback whale he had spotted entangled in lobster gear. British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR, a SEA partner) immediately deployed their Large Whale Disentanglement Team who subsequently spent several days searching for the animal. Despite their best efforts and several more sightings from the local fishing community, the team were unable to trace the whale however they did remain on standby (despite being such big animals, whales can be very elusive).

The entangled whale towing a buoy, which was first spotted in the Forth in February 2019. Image credit: Ronnie Mackie

On Tuesday 23rd April members of SEA received another report, this time from the East Lothian Council Countryside Rangers  of a dead humpback whale washed ashore at Tyninghame near Dunbar. Using images of the whale captured by members of the public while it was still alive in the Forth, we were able to confirm that the whale now dead on the Dunbar shoreline was the same animal.

The humpback washed ashore at Tyninghame earler this week with entangling ropes still attached. Image credit: East Lothian Council Countryside Rangers

Later that day the whale carcass was moved to Skateraw beach where the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme’s (SMASS) veterinary pathologist Dr Andrew Brownlow performed a necropsy. His findings are detailed here:

“A really unfortunate case, this animal had definitely been entangled in rope for several weeks if not months, based on the scarring evident in the skin and underlying tissue. The rope had cut deep into the blubber layer, in particular around the pectoral fin where this had caused a severe chronic infection. The animal was in poor body condition, thin, with little free lipid in the blubber layer. It also had a very high parasite burden, most notably of spiny-headed worms, in the intestine. This all built a grim example of the impacts of marine entanglement in these larger baleen whales. Once the animal had become entangled, it would have had to spend much more energy dragging rope and any attached gear with it through the water. In this case the rope was stretched tight over the back just behind the head, and this also probably stopped the animal from feeding normally. As a result, the whale lost condition, and was therefore more susceptible to the effects of infection and parasitism, which debilitated it further. We found evidence in the lungs that it had eventually drowned, either through exhaustion, or because it became further entangled”.

Relocating the whale to a suitable site for necropsy. Image credits: Dunbar RNLI

The necropsy underway. Image credit: SMASS

Some of the injuries sustained by the humpback whale as a result of being entangled in ropes. Image credits: SMASS

A very sad end for this animal despite the best efforts of a huge number of volunteers, concerned members of the public, and those working within the Forth area.  The necropsy of this animal and the valuable information we were able to gain from it was only possible thanks to logistic help from a great number of people- not least East Lothian Council Countryside RangersBritish Divers Marine Life Rescue,  Dunbar RNLI Lifeboats and local farmers donating their time and machinery. Many, many thanks to all involved. Image credit: SMASS

Entanglements are thankfully a relatively rare occurrence in Scottish waters and the reported prevalence of these events here over the last 20 years has remained low. However data collected by SMASS does suggest that the incidence and range of affected species does appear to be increasing. But this isn’t just a Scottish problem. Entanglement in fishing lines and nets is a growing concern globally and is considered by many to be the most significant welfare threat to marine mammals of our time. These incidents, as highlighted in this case, can interfere with an animal’s ability to move and feed, can cause horrific injuries which must be incredibly painful, and if many animals get entangled, the morbidity and mortality effects can have an impact at a population or even species level. On top of this, entanglements can pose a threat to human safety (disentanglement attempts can be incredibly dangerous) and have a significant financial impact on individual fishers through damage to their gear and lost fishing time. However it is vital to remember that no entanglement is deliberate, and more often than not it is fishermen who are more upset and affected by these incidents than anyone. It is also important to remember that it is often fishermen who come to the rescue of these stricken animals, for example it was a fisherman who first reported this entangled animal, and several Dunbar fishermen played an integral role in the successful disentanglement of a humpback here a few years ago.

This particularly sad case highlights the need for projects such as SEA, which was initiated by members of the Scottish inshore creel sector who recognised concerns over entanglement within their own industry.  To date over 100 creel  fishermen have contributed to SEA’s work by sharing information on their marine wildlife encounters, experiences of entanglement, and their ideas of ways to reduce the risks of these incidents occurring in the future. This is already leading to some exciting developments which would not be possible without the industry’s continued support and participation, and highlights the potential to develop practical, proportional industry-led steps to reducing entanglement risks. The SEA project continues to receive a massively positive response from the Scottish inshore creel fishing community, and it is crucial that we and the public appreciate these efforts and recognise that fishers are the solution to this issue, not the problem.

If you are a fisherman and you encounter an animal entangled in your gear, please report this to SEA as soon as possible by contacting the team on 01463 246048, 07393 798153 or at Help and advice on how to deal with these situations is available and we will be able to dispatch a response team if needed. Your help in recording these incidents would be very much appreciated and any information you share will be treated positively, sensitively and confidentially. 

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