West coast entanglement

Last week the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme (SMASS, www.strandings.org), a partner in the Scottish Entanglement Alliance (SEA), received a call about another whale entanglement – this time a minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) caught in ropes off the north-west coast of Scotland.

The young minke whale spotted at sea, entangled around the head and mouth. Image credits: Hannah Elizabeth Fisher

These unfortunate images show a juvenile animal entangled around the head in what appears to be creel lines. The animal had been dead for a couple of days at the time these images were taken, hence the tongue has inflated like a sail (this process is normal in baleen whale cases). The rope is visibly attached to the animal which appeared to be anchored to the seabed. In contrast to the humpback whale entanglement on the east coast detailed in the previous post, this minke whale showed an acute entanglement case, meaning the animal likely drowned very soon after becoming entangled. We estimate this based on the apparent absence of tissue damage associated with the ropes.

Whilst rapid drowning is perhaps better than enduring the suffering caused by chronic entanglement, this does highlight how difficult it is to help in some cases. Minke whales are the smallest baleen species in our waters and are less powerful swimmers, therefore less able to escape or surface to breathe once entangled (the humpback whale in the last post suffered a chronic entanglement, surviving entangled in ropes for weeks if not months before succumbing). In Scotland we do have a dedicated whale disentanglement team – British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) who are also a SEA partner – who can be contacted 24/7 however in cases such as this and others like it, by the time anyone realises these animals have become caught it is often too late to attempt a rescue.

The minke whale has since washed ashore on Mull. Although the animal has been freed from the entangling gear, evidence of this is still visible on the carcass. Image credits: Hannah Elizabeth Fisher. 

Entanglements aren’t just a Scottish problem, they occur globally wherever marine animals and fishing gear overlap. However the good news is that SEA is working with the inshore creel fishing industry to better understand the scale and impacts of marine animal entanglements. To date over 100 Scottish creel fishermen have been involved in the SEA project, sharing their knowledge and expertise surrounding these unfortunate incidents, and their ideas of how these may be prevented. ¬†This information is proving invaluable and all of the SEA partners are very grateful for their help.

In many areas around the Scottish coast creel fishing is not only economically important as a source of income and employment in fragile rural communities, it is an industry that also has strong social and cultural significance. No entanglement is deliberate and fishermen are often as upset (if not more) by these events as anyone. This case again highlights the need for projects such as SEA, which work with and support fishermen to find solutions to entanglements so that they can prevent these incidents from occurring whilst continuing to earn a living. It is vital that we continue to develop positive working relationships with the inshore fleet and we hope that the fisherman whose gear this was was able to retrieve it with minimal damage.

If you are a creel fisherman and would like to learn more about the SEA project or get involved in this, or if you ever come across an animal entangled in your gear, please contact the SEA project coordinator Ellie MacLennan on 01463 246048, 07393 798153 or at ellie.maclennan@sac.co.uk. Any information you choose to share will be treated positively, sensitively and confidentially.

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