Right Whale

Fishermen sail to whales' Rescue
TRAPPED: Two endangered right whales are caught in a weir off Grand Manan.

For the Times Globe

    Grand Manan fishermen were leaving port this morning to start cutting the stakes of a herring weir in efforts to free two trapped right whales.
    The whales, members of an endangered species, were discovered inside the weir on Sunday morning by two fishermen.
    Melanie Sonnenberg, project manager for the Grand Manan Fishermen's Association, said last evening that nobody is quite sure why the whales went into the weir - or why they do not want to leave.
    Right whales do not eat herring - they eat plankton. Possibly, she suggested, the whales followed the herring, which also eat plankton.
    The weir consists of twine strung on poles driven into the sea floor to form a cage with a funnel shaped opening through which fish enter but cannot find their way out. It worked: neither the whales nor the herring could get out.
    The fishermen, scientists and others decided yesterday to open up the back side of the weir in hopes that the whales would swim to freedom.
    Mrs. Sonnenberg said a diver helped remove the twine and the top poles from a section of the weir.
    The herring made their escape, which could represent a loss of tens of thousands of dollars to the fishermen. But the whales stayed - apparently in no hurry to leave.
    The stakes that will likely be cut this morning cost more than $300 each before they even arrive on the island and Mrs. Sonnenberg said they will probably have to cut at least six. Add to that the cost of six crew at $150 a tide and divers at $500 a shot.
    "The costs are astronomical," said Mrs. Sonnenberg, though she added that it's not about money. "These guys realize they're endangered, that it's important and we have to get them out".
    "But I think there's another side to the story. All these things come at a cost and it's hard for industry to bear the cost alone." A company called Webco owns this particular herring weir.
    Meanwhile, Mrs. Sonnenberg said the whales don't seem to be in any distress, nor are they hostile. The two whales are both females, one bigger than the other, possibly an adult and a juvenile. They might be mother and daughter, or maybe just travelling companions.
    There are about 300 North Atlantic right whales left. The females of reproductive age are considered especially crucial to the species' survival. A right whale sanctuary in the Bay of Fundy was designated by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in 1993. It covers an area midway between Digby Neck, N.S., and Grand Manan.
    Mrs. Sonnenberg described a frustrating scene as the whales, longer than the fishing boat from which she observed the events, came to the hole in the weir, sometimes coming halfway out, before changing their minds and turning around.
    "They seem to be playing," she said. "They'd line up and get right up to it. She didn't seem really panicked about it, it was just like a conscious decision. 'Nah, I think I'll stay.'
    "And what are you going to do, shoo a whale? We're talking about 40 tons of blubber. "

A Whale of a Rescue
Grand Manan fishermen free two right whales from the wrong place

On Grand Manan for the Times Globe

Leonard Hinsdale    Scuba diver Leonard Hinsdale has freed whales, dolphins and sharks from herring weirs around this Bay of Fundy island.
    But the Grand Mananer known to islanders as "Scubie" has never freed anything as big as one of the right whales that was trapped in a weir off the southwest coast of Grand Manan for two days.
    "It was humungus," said the Castalia resident. "You wouldn't see much bigger on television."
    Standing on the wharf in nearby Seal Cove, leaning on the hood of his Ford Ranger XL, he estimated the width of the larger whale to be about twice that of his truck.
    He figured the smaller one might have been the calf of the larger one - though "a mighty good-size calf."
    Swimming around in an underwater pen with the two large mammals was exciting. But as if that wasn't close enough, while Mr. Hinsdale was trying to create an opening in the weir big enough for the two whales to escape, the bigger one swam over and stopped right in front of him.
    "It was as friendly as a kitten, like he was saying, 'Who are you?' "recounted Mr. Hinsdale.
    "He was just as gentle as a kitten. We looked each other in the eye and he turned to go away and I reached out and put both hands on his back."
    He said the right whale's skin felt rubbery, "like a nice little cushion."
    Then, after being trapped for two days, the two right whales swam through the hole to freedom just before 9:30 a.m. yesterday, much to the relief of weir owner Wayne Ingalls.
    "I just don't want to ever see them again," he said on the Seal Cove wharf yesterday afternoon. "It causes too much trouble."

Wayne Ingalls    Mr. Ingalls first noticed the two intruders swimming inside the enclosure on Sunday. Since the weir is only 1,000 feet around, the two large mammals did not have a lot of room to manoeuvre.
    Fishermen build weirs by driving large stakes into the floor of the bay, then stringing twine on them to form a cage. Its funnel-shaped opening allows herring (and, apparently, whales) to enter, but they cannot get out.
    Mr. Ingalls suspects the two right whales followed plankton, which also lure the herring - fish the whales do not eat.
    After inspecting the situation on Sunday, he prepared his crew and went out on Monday morning to try to rescue the whales.
    Mr. Hinsdale donned his wetsuit, grabbed his bucksaw and jumped in with the whales. His job was to saw off the top portion of the stakes so that the crew on Mr. Ingalls' boat, The Right Combination, could lift the upper net as far as possible, creating an underwater hole through which the whales could swim.
    "There was a good-size hole there," said Mr. Hinsdale, "but I guess they wasn't happy about it."
   So the crew went home for the night, hoping the whales would change their minds. But the whales were still there yesterday morning when Mr. Ingalls' crew arrived about 8am.
    This time, the strategy was to open up a larger hole in the net by cutting away three of the 65-foot hickory stakes that had been driven into the floor of the Bay of Fundy.
    Sandbags were then used to weigh the lower net down, creating a 25- or 30- foot gap in the weir when combined with the lift of the upper net.
    The two whales swam around for about half an hour after the hole was opened up, then swam out.
    But the whales weren't the only things to swim out. In fact, long before the whales made their exit, the valuable herring catch in the weir swam away.
    Mr. Ingalls said it was impossible to tell how much herring escaped. The catch is measured in hogshead - one unit weighs just under one tonne. One of The Right Combination's crew, Vernon Bleumortier, said the weirs can hold between 400 and 600 hogshead. At about $100 per hogshead, that's worth between $40,000 and $60,000.
    Herring are difficult to predict, said Mr. Ingalls. They've only managed one catch so far this season. He said they may not see another decent catch, or they could see the weir packed full of the tiny fish.
    Added to that loss, he said, was the cost of repairing the damaged weir, two days of wages for a crew of seven, including a diver hired especially for the rescue.
    Local marine biologists praised Mr. Ingalls' handling of the situation.
    Andrew Westgate of the Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station, said the fisherman did, "absolutely everything that was asked of him."

Heather Koopman    Biologist Heather Koopman said, "There's nothing else you can do when you get a right whale in your weir.
    With fewer than 300 right whales left on the entire planet, each one is precious. There are so few, scientists have identified and named each of them. Researchers in Boston are now waiting for photographs and video footage of the two trapped whales to determine which ones they are.
    Ms. Koopman said the scenario could have been a lot worse. With one weighing about 40 tonnes, the whales could have done a lot of damage to themselves and the weir net. Just in case the whales got spooked and charged through the net, dragging it with them, an American trained to disentangle large whales was called in from Cape Cod.
    Bob Bowman, from the East Coast Centre for Coastal Studies, arrived on the south-west coast of Grand Manan on Monday to monitor the rescue efforts. Yesterday, he remained on standby at the research station in North Head. Once the whales were free, Mr. Bowman boarded the 1:30p.m. ferry back to the mainland.
    Mr. Westgate wasn't just concerned about the safety of the right whales, but he also expressed concern over the reputation of the weir fishing industry.
    "The mind reels at what could have happened."
    If the whales had died, "all hell would have broken loose" in the United States, where the preservation of right whales is one of the foremost environmental concerns.
    He says an international boycott of fish caught in Grand Manan weirs may have spelled the end of a safe way to catch fish.
    "It's a great fishery. I wish all fisheries were like that."
    Since it's been around for more than 200 years, it's already proven be sustainable. Furthermore, he said, incidents of whales getting trapped inside are very rare. Normally, the weirs pose little or no threat to anything but the species intended to be caught. They're certainly nowhere near the threat to the ocean environment that gill nets pose.
    And, as yesterday proves, anything that swims into a weir can be released safely.
    In areas where whales do get caught more often, whale doors can be incorporated into the design of the weir. Herring can still be scooped out before the door is lowered to allow the whale to swim to safety. Not far from yesterday's rescue, near Long Island, just south of North Head, a whale door is already used to release whales, dolphins and other creatures from a herring weir.