Large Whale Entanglement Response
NOAA Fisheries authorizes emergency response to large whales with life-threatening entanglements.
Large whales, which include baleen and sperm whales, can become entangled in active, lost, or discarded fishing gear and marine debris. Some whales that become entangled are able to shed the gear on their own. However, whales unable to free themselves can carry the entanglement for days, months, or even years. Entanglements often interfere with swimming, feeding, breathing, and other vital functions. Severe entanglements can cause injuries that can result in death from infection, starvation, amputation (e.g., flippers or flukes), blood loss, strangulation, or drowning.
The National Large Whale Entanglement Network mounts response operations to remove entangling gear, provide relief to individually entangled animals, and gain important information for marine mammal conservation and recovery.
The Large Whale Entanglement Response Network
While entangled large whales are always considered to be in distress, injuries are not necessarily life threatening at the onset. There is usually time for trained response teams to locate the animal, carefully assess and document the entanglement, and in some cases remove the entangling material when determined to be appropriate and safe.
Response operations in the United States are coordinated by NOAA Fisheries and conducted by the National Large Whale Entanglement Response Network. The network includes members from non-profit, academic, industry, and government organizations. Network members have significant experience in entanglement response, which they have gained through training and responses overseen by NOAA. Responders must undergo significant training before they are authorized under a permit, issued to the NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program, to closely approach or attempt to free an entangled whale (see “Responder Levels” section below). NOAA also supports the network by providing tools, training, protocols, some funding, and oversight across the country to ensure these activities are conducted in a manner that emphasizes human and animal safety.
Large whale entanglement responders are authorized by NOAA Fisheries, and are categorized into five levels, based on training and expertise:
Level 1: First responders are trained to spot and report entangled large whales and may be asked to assist in tracking and documenting entangled whales from a distance.
Level 2: Responders are trained to assess and document entangled large whales and may be asked to assist higher-level responders with entanglement response activities.
Level 3: Authorized responders closely approach entangled whales for visual health assessments and may attach tracking devices (tags) to entangling material so entangled whales can be followed remotely and quickly located.
Level 4: Authorized responders use tools to cut and remove entangling gear. Level 4 responders can perform these activities on all whale species except North Atlantic right whales, as disentangling this species is particularly dangerous.
Level 5: Authorized responder duties are similar to Level 4, except that responders may remove entangling gear from all species of whales, and have additional training and experience in responding to North Atlantic right whales.
Protecting Human Safety
Human safety is paramount. The whales do not understand that responders are trying to help and can react violently and unpredictably. Responding to entangled large whales is inherently dangerous and only trained and authorized responders should approach (including the use of drones, vessels, personal watercraft, etc.) within 100 yards of an entangled whale (within 500 yards for North Atlantic right whales). Despite the large size of some whale species, weighing up to 200 tons, they are quick and flexible. People, including trained and authorized responders, have died while attempting to rescue an entangled whale. Boats have been damaged and overturned, and people have been pulled overboard during disentanglement attempts.
Specialized Tools and Techniques
Network members have developed and refined several tools and techniques to increase responder and animal safety. Following assessment of the entanglement, animal’s behavior, and environment, responders may decide to attach large floats (or “kegs”) to the entangling material. This technique, an adaptation of an old whaling technique called “kegging,” adds buoyancy and drag that make it increasingly difficult for the entangled large whale to dive. Kegging keeps the animal closer to the surface and the entanglement more accessible. This allows trained teams to continuously monitor and evaluate the risks and helps them make safer and more informed cuts to the entangling material.
Depending on the situation, several tools can help responders make accurate cuts to the entangling material. Most of the knives used to free whales are hooked and mounted on poles to reduce proximity and time responders spend near the animal. All new tools and techniques are thoroughly tested prior to their use during a response.
Despite the use of these specialized tools and techniques, responses to entangled large whales may require several attempts conducted over days, weeks, or months, as well as over large geographic areas. In some of these cases, telemetry devices (satellite transmitters) attached to entangling gear help responders track and resight an entangled animal over time and safely respond when conditions and resources allow. Monitoring entangled animals, including through photos, also allows responders to evaluate entanglement configurations and wounds over time and alerts teams to when an animal manages to shed gear on its own.
Severe entanglements cause suffering and serious injuries, which can lead to a painful death in large whales—quickly or over a prolonged period of time. Response operations are conducted not only to provide relief to individually entangled animals, but to help conserve and recover vulnerable populations. This is particularly important for large whales, as many species—such as the North Atlantic right whale—are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. For some species that have small populations, saving a single individual (especially breeding females) can help their population recover. Entanglement in fishing gear is one of two primary threats contributing to the North Atlantic right whale Unusual Mortality Event.
Entanglement response to large whales also provides an important opportunity to collect, document, and identify the entangling gear. Analyzing removed entangling gear provides information that may reduce the risk of future entanglements. By identifying the source of entangling fishing gear, NOAA Fisheries can work with the fishing industry and coastal communities to identify geographic areas, times of year, fisheries, and gear configurations that have resulted in whale entanglements. These data can help NOAA Fisheries better understand and minimize the risks of entanglement and ultimately aids in the conservation and management of many large whale species.
Outreach and Education
NOAA Fisheries has conducted significant outreach throughout the United States to the fishing industry, state and federal fishery managers, and the public to make them aware of the risk of entanglement, promote the development of ideas to reduce entanglements, and improve the reporting of entanglements. Increasing awareness and promoting stewardship helps reduce the entanglement threat, increases reporting, and promotes public safety. Promoting stewardship and working together with the public, industry, and stakeholders, is instrumental in mitigating entanglement of large whales.
What Can You Do?
The best way you can help is by immediately reporting sightings of entangled whales to the local National Large Whale Entanglement Response Network or the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF CH-16. Then, stand by at a safe distance until authorized response team members arrive, and provide any photos or videos to NOAA Fisheries. Look behind the animal for any trailing gear as the whale moves or dives. This can be many yards behind the whale and can be a hazard to boaters, as it may become entangled on your boat or motor.
Our goal is to conduct rescue operations with the best possible outcome for the animals while also minimizing risk to the professional responders. Let qualified experts respond to entangled whales. Entanglement response in the United States should only be conducted by members of the network who have been trained and authorized by NOAA Fisheries.
Introductory Responder Courses
If you are interested in learning more about the National Large Whale Entanglement Response Network, and the Level One “first responder” role, you can take our free web-based introductory responder course. This course, which was developed in a partnership between NOAA and The Nature Conservancy, will familiarize you with assessing and reporting entangled large whales. However, completion of this course alone does not provide qualification as a network member.