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Published:July 11th, 2006 15:49 EST
Scientists and crew aboard the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster

Scientists and crew aboard the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster

By SOP newswire

July 11, 2006 " Scientists and crew aboard the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster assisted the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies to disentangle a humpback whale off the coast of Massachusetts on Sunday. While tagging and tracking humpback whales in the NOAA Stellwagen National Marine Sanctuary, crew and scientists aboard the Nancy Foster found themselves at the right place at the right time. (Click NOAA image for larger view of trained rescue personnel from NOAA and the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies carefully approaching a humpback whale using specially-designed equipment to safely remove the entangling lines. Please credit NOAA.")

A local whale watch vessel, "The Whale Watcher," spotted the entangled whale on Sunday, July 9, 2006, and immediately notified the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, as well as staff aboard the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster. The Nancy Foster located the animal and assessed the severity of the entanglement. Scientists already were familiar with this particular whale. Years ago they named the whale "Sockeye," after the type of salmon, due to a deformity of the lower jaw.

"More times than not, entangled marine mammals are not re-sighted after the initial report," said Jamison Smith, disentanglement coordinator for the NOAA Fisheries Service. "Most of the time, there are no vessels in the immediate area of the sighting that can stand by, and the animal swims away before the rescue team arrives."

The Nancy Foster crew had sighted "Sockeye" the previous afternoon gear-free just northwest of the location where the animal was observed entangled. In the previous sighting, "Sockeye" was part of a large group of animals actively feeding within the sanctuary. So in addition to focusing on the feeding ecology and habitat usage of humpback whales within the sanctuary, researchers on board the Nancy Foster were able to determine more about the timing and extent of trauma associated with this entanglement. (Click NOAA image for larger view of trained rescue personnel from NOAA and the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies carefully approaching a humpback whale using specially-designed equipment to safely remove the entangling lines. The NOAA Ship Nancy Foster is kept at a safe distance from the rescue efforts. Please credit NOAA. ")

Scientists learn a lot from entanglements by looking at the circumstances of individual entanglements and injury. They continue to use what they learn to provide guidance
for management activities that ultimately reduce entanglements.

"This leg of the Nancy Foster cruise in the NOAA Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is dedicated to humpback whale tagging using non-invasive, suction-cup, multiple sensor tags," said Chief Scientist David Wiley, research coordinator for the sanctuary. "Data collected in this effort will be used to better understand humpback whale feeding behavior."

NOAA scientists and their partners work to gain a better understanding of whale behavior in prime feeding grounds like the NOAA Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Study results may lead to the development of safer fishing gear and the prevention of entanglements and ship strikes in these actively used areas where whales congregate, and fishing and whale watching activities are very popular.

In this situation, researchers on the Nancy Foster deployed a small rigid hull inflatable to help assess and track the entangled animal. "It appeared that the animal had a `wad` of some type of netting balled up on the right side of its head," said Jamison. "We saw two lines, one taut and the other loose trailing down the left side of the animal." Jamison also noted that the animal was not raising his tail when he dove. This assessment proved critical for briefing the PCCS rescue team when they arrived on the scene.

When the trained and experienced PCCS rescue team arrived on scene, they quickly went to work. They added buoys to provide additional drag. This helped slow down "Sockeye," so they could more effectively and safely work with him to get the gear off his body. A few precise cuts on the netting attached to the side of the animal, then applying some pressure on the other side, proved to be the exact combination the whale needed. Researchers removed all of the gear from the whale, and he swam freely into the night.

"What a wonderful feeling watching the whale swim away gear free," Jamison added. "Our team was just thrilled to be able to help in this situation, but we are certainly aware that for every one that is successfully disentangled, there are others that are reported but never re-sighted, making rescue attempts impossible."

The NOAA Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is the only national marine sanctuary in the northeast, and is considered an important feeding ground for great whales, including endangered right, humpback and finback whales. The 842-square-mile sanctuary, located between Cape Cod and Cape Ann off the Massachusetts coast, has been historically important as a fishing ground for more than 400 years and as a whale watching destination since the 1970s. The NOAA sanctuary was designated in 1992.

According to Jamison, scientists know that based on the scarring observed on humpback whales, they have learned that many more whales encounter and are entangled in gear than are reported. The NOAA Fisheries Service encourages boaters to contact officials as soon as possible if they encounter entangled marine mammals.

In 2007, NOAA, an agency of the U.S. Commerce Department, celebrates 200 years of science and service to the nation. From the establishment of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1807 by Thomas Jefferson to the formation of the Weather Bureau and the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries in the 1870s, much of America`s scientific heritage is rooted in NOAA.

NOAA is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and information service delivery for transportation, and by providing environmental stewardship of the nation`s coastal and marine resources. Through the emerging Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), NOAA is working with its federal partners and more than 60 countries to develop a global monitoring network that is as integrated as the planet it observes.

Relevant Web Sites
How to Report Stranded or Entangled Marine Mammals

NOAA Fisheries Interactions/Protected Species Bycatch

NOAA Responsible Marine Wildlife Viewing

NOAA Stellwagen National Marine Sanctuary

Media Contact:
Connie Barclay, NOAA Fisheries Service, (301) 713-2370
(NOAA Fisheries Service photos taken under authority of MMPA/ESA Permit No. 932-1489 issued to the NOAA Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program.)