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Scientists have tough time locating whales tangled in fishing gear

BY NINA CHIARELLI
Telegraph-Journal
August 31/02

   There are at least 10 whales currently tangled in fishing gear, roaming the waters off North America's eastern seaboard.
    "In any given season, we estimate that eight percent of right whales get tangled and three percent of humpback whales get tangled," said Scott Landry, a naturalist and whale rescue team member with the Center for Coastal Studies, in Provincetown, Mass.
   With only about 350 right whales left in the world, about 30 of the endangered species could be in harm's way at any given time.
   Right now, three humpbacks and seven right whales remain tangled in the Atlantic Ocean off New England and the Bay of Fundy, he said. "It doesn't mean all the whales are in lethal entanglements," Mr. Landry said.
   But at least one young whale, identified by the number 3120, and seen over the two weeks near Grand Manan and off the coast of Cape Cod, could be close to death. "It's probably on the fast tract to dying," he said, adding entanglements with whales like 3120, about two-years-old and younger, usually kill the mammals.
    Since the whale could be prevented from growing, and plunging for food while tangled in fishing gear, its chances for survival are limited.
   The problem for biologists and researchers, though, remains locating the animals. In Canada the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Coast Guard work together to respond to tangled whale sightings, in the hopes of attaching tracking buoys to them, making it easier for trained professionals to remove the netting.
   In the United States, Mr. Landry's non-profit centre is the only organization legally entitled by the federal government and responsible for disentangling the ensnared whales. "We started doing it around 1984," Mr. Landry said. "And over the years we have learned that it's a great idea to get the satellite buoy on (a whale) to keep its location and be able to track it.
    "Once we get close enough, our general practice is to tire the whales out with a method calling kegging."
   Kegging, reminiscent of ancient whaling techniques that used largewooden kegs, attaches a large buoy to; the whale causing extra buoyancy and drag, which tires the whales out and usually makes them surface longer and more frequently.
   "We try to document every minute of (our work)" he said, adding "humpbacks are much more amenable to being kegged.
   " Success at removing netting and fishing gear from right whales can be more difficult, Mr. Landry said, because they're faster and stronger swimmers. The whales are usually in an agitated state as well, which can make it very hard for trained volunteers to free them.
   Two current practices used by the Center for Coastal Studies, called SAMS and DAMS, are area management strategies designed for specific seasons, or with an overall dynamic approach. Mr. Landry said if the centre recognizes an area frequented by the whales during a specific season, they will ask fishermen in the area to move nets or change their practices.
   Dynamic area management strategies can be harder because although whales can be spotted in an area, they travel long distances very quickly, often eluding trackers.
   One thing Mr. Landry said he could be sure of was the number of entanglements was not declining. "At this point there is no reason to believe they're decreasing at all.

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