to whales' Rescue
TRAPPED: Two endangered right
whales are caught in a weir off Grand Manan.
By SANDRA DAVIS
For the Times Globe
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.
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.
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.
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
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
"And what are you going to do, shoo a whale?
We're talking about 40 tons of blubber. "
A Whale of a
Grand Manan fishermen free two right
whales from the wrong place
By MIA URQUHART
On Grand Manan
for the Times Globe
Scuba diver Leonard Hinsdale has freed whales,
dolphins and sharks from herring weirs around this Bay of Fundy
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
"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
He figured the smaller one might have been the
calf of the larger one - though "a mighty good-size
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
"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."
said the right whale's skin felt rubbery, "like a nice little
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.
don't want to ever see them again," he said on the Seal Cove wharf yesterday
afternoon. "It causes too much trouble."
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
After inspecting the situation on Sunday, he
prepared his crew and went out on Monday morning to try to rescue the
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
biologists praised Mr. Ingalls' handling of the
Andrew Westgate of the Grand Manan Whale and
Seabird Research Station, said the fisherman did, "absolutely everything that
was asked of him."
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.
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.
wasn't just concerned about the safety of the right whales, but he also
expressed concern over the reputation of the weir fishing
"The mind reels at what could have
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
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.