Humpback whale frees itself from fishing lines

Bycatch and entanglement are serious threats to marine mammals, including humpback whales(Credit: Gudkovandrey/Depositphotos)

A humpback whale off the coast of California that was entangled in rope throughout the summer seems to have freed itself from the lines. A video from a tour operator caught the entangled giant mammal swimming in the waters of the state's southern coast, along with some frolicking dolphin companions.

You might already be familiar with bycatch, one of commercial fishing's biggest detriments to wild marine life, in which unwanted species like turtles or dolphins are collected and inadvertently killed in fishing operations meant to catch more desirable species for human consumption. Another side effect of getting fish on our dinner plates is entanglement, in which sea life gets tangled up in fishing nets, lines and ropes either through active fishing operations or ocean trash.

That seems to be what happened to a humpback whale off Dana Point on California's southern coast, that was spotted during the summer swimming around bound in rope.

"The line was coming out the left side of the mouth and was wrapped around the left pectoral flipper then went back along the body where the lines wrapped together and trailed a single buoy about 15 feet behind the whale," Justin Viezbicke from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) told New Atlas.

Viezbicke says that when the whale was first spotted on August 8 near California's Newport Beach, the animal was too active for intervention to free it from the nets. While groups kept their eye on the creature throughout the summer, no one was able to free the whale, which is believed to be a female, from the lines. Using distinctive marks on the whale, though, Viezbicke and other local observers believe it freed itself from the lines as it now appears unentangled.

Viezbicke says that NOAA is waiting for confirmation from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife regarding the source of lines, but it is suspected that they came from a Dungeness crab fishery.

"On average, about 10 large whales were reported entangled along the West Coast each year between 2000 and 2012," says NOAA. "In 2015, a total of 61 whales were reported entangled off the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California. That is the highest annual total since NOAA Fisheries started keeping records in 1982, but the record may not stand for long. In the first half of 2016, almost 40 whales were reported entangled off California alone."

Fortunately, in the case of this one whale captured in this drone-shot video from whale-watching tour operator Dana Wharf Whale Watching, things seem to have worked out OK. And while it might look like the dolphins are zipping along with the whale in a kind of helpful solidarity, Viezbicke says that seeing such a sight is actually quite common. "We see this frequently off the coast," he told us, "like bow riding on a boat they get a free ride from whales."

Still, it's a bit more fun to watch the video from the solidarity point of view, don't you think?

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