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Search for an 80 foot, Entangled Blue Whale Continues Off California Coast

Entangled in fishing gear, a blue whale struggles off California. Contact lost Tuesday.

 

An 80 foot long blue whale struggles to escape from a crab pot line off the Orange County coast.

A rescue operation never attempted before, resumed today off the coast of Southern California as crews try to free an 80 foot blue whale from fishing lines attached to a crab trap.

A whale watching boat operated by Captain Dave's Dolphin & Whale Watching Safari first noticed that the whale appeared to have 100 to 200 feet (30 to 60 meters) of crabbing lines and buoys wound around him, perhaps 3.5 miles off the Orange County Coast.

According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spokesman Adam Milstein, the crab lines appear to run along the length of the whale's body, possibly passing through its mouth. They are clearly wrapped around one of its pectoral flippers. The whale also appears to be dragging the crab trap. NOAA is in charge of the rescue effort. There is also a volunteer disentanglement team trained to assist in whale rescues. The operation is also supported by a small fleet of fishing and whale watching vessels that are helping to relocate the whale.

Crew members say they got in close proximity to the whale yesterday. But they were unable to cut away the lines wrapped around the leviathan. The rescue operation was suspended after the animal grew visibly distressed.

The rescue team had initially affixed a telemetry buoy to the whale, but it was removed over concerns that the system would become twisted in the crab lines and lost when the lines were severed. Rescuers had to wait for another sighting of the whale.

California is a favorite foraging grounds for blue whales, perhaps in part because they are protected by law. Sightings are common at this time of year; however, blue whale entanglements are rare. Because they are rare, scientist have little expertise in getting them disentangled. This has complicated any rescue.

"Blue whales are typically thought to be more offshore animals, and crabbing gear is thought be more inshore, but obviously the spatial overlap between those two is coming into conflict more and more," said Leigh Torres, a marine biologist at Oregon State University in Corvallis. He has studied blue whales. "The fact that we see this entanglement isn't terribly surprising, though it is unique."

"It is a quite tricky operation," agreed Torres. "These whales, no matter what species it is, can be quite powerful...the animal has to be fairly calm and ok with the vessel approaching closely. You have to get the cutting implement just in the right place...it's no easy task."

Line entanglements can be dangerous for whales, though the degree of danger will depend on the situation. Whales may drag gear around for a long time, but the line may have a ball-and-chain effect on the individual and eventually compromise its health.

For blue whales, entanglement may be especially detrimental to their feeding habits because they rely on high mobility. They often employ a late burst of speed to overtake a patch of krill-a practice known as lunge feeding-which may be compromised if they are snarled in fishing or crabbing lines.

Blue whales are not only the largest animal in the world, they are thought to be the oldest animal that has over lived. In lifespans that last more than 100 years, they can grow to lengths of 100 feet (30 meters) and weights up to 150 tons. Decimated by whaling in the early 1900s, the blue whale has recovered over recent decades, partly as a result of protection under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

Today, the blue whale is primarily threatened by human activities including ship strikes, noise in the environment (sonar, vessel traffic, and seismic surveys), and entanglements from fishing and crabbing gear.

 

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