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Agreement inked to ease efforts to free entangled right whales

BY JENNIFER ROBINSON
Canadian Press
August 23/03

    DARTMOUTH, N.S. - An agreement to streamline international efforts to rescue endangered right whales from tangles of deadly fishing gear has been reached between Canada and the United States.
   The three-year deal was signed Friday by officials from the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Center for Coastal Studies, a non-profit organization based in Provincetown, Mass.
   The centre is seen as a world leader in the dangerous and highly specialized field of freeing the gigantic mammals from gill nets and lobster-trap gear that can saw deeply into the animal's flesh and cause infections, which can be fatal if not treated.
   The department and centre "have worked --operatively but informally for a long time," said Neil Bellefontaine, regional director-general of DFO in the Maritimes, at a news conference.
   "Today's agreement formalizes that relationship and expands the level of co-operation, ultimately to the benefit of this 'endangered species. "
   There are 350 right whales left in the world and about two-thirds of them migrate every year up the eastern seaboard from their birthing grounds off Florida and Georgia to summer in the plankton-rich waters of the Bay of Fundy, located between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
   The route leads them through rich fishing grounds and shipping lanes travelled by massive bulk carriers, which accounts for their high mortality rates from ship strikes and entangled gear.
   "This is an international conservation challenge, therefore it makes sense to be working in close collaboration with our neighbours to the north," said Peter Borrelli, executive-director of the centre.
   The department will now store equipment used in the high-seas disentanglements in the Maritimes for quick use by experienced teams from the centre.
   The Americans will also be issued permits to conduct the operations and research in Canadian waters, and may help train more fisheries personnel in freeing the massive creatures.
   Mr. Bellefontaine said he couldn't say how much money the department will put towards the agreement, but said the funds will come from Canada's Right Whale Recovery Plan, developed three years ago.
   The average cost of disentangling a right whale is "a tricky question" but runs in the thousands of dollars, said Mr. Borrelli.
   He said the expense of freeing perhaps the best known entangled whale, dubbed Churchill, cost more than $250,000 US two years ago.
   Canadian and U. S. scientists tried for months to free the whale from a tangle of synthetic fishing line in its mouth as it struggled off Nova Scotia. Churchill was thought to have died.
   Though known as slow and lumbering, right whales are the most difficult whale to disentangle because they can become "quite hostile and violent" when approached by rubber dinghies carrying rescue teams.
   "They are not happy to have us close to them when they're in pain and suffering," said Charles (Stormy) Mayo, co-founder of the centre and director of its whale rescue program.
   "They're very difficult animals with unparalleled power compared to the other whales. They're hard to slow down, which we have to do in order to cut them free. "
   About 50 per cent of the missions fail and no hard statistics exist to determine how many of the creatures survive infections caused by tangled gear after being freed, Mr. Borrelli said.

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