Successful release of an entangled humpback whale in Duqm Port, Oman

Photo credit:  Ada al Jabri, Oman Environment Authority

 

On the evening of January 18th, 2021, staff at the Environment Authority – Oman (EA) were notified that  an Endangered Arabian Sea humpback whale was entangled in fishing gear inside the Port of Duqm. The whale apparently had been trapped for days, with net and line wrapped inside its mouth and around the flippers, dorsal fin and tail stock. This situation was immediately recognised as a significant risk for both the whale and Port operations.

 

Recalling the entanglement response training that had been conducted by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in Oman in 2015, specialists from the Environment Authority, Five Oceans Environmental Services LLC (FOES) and Future Seas Global SPC, supported by the Environment Society (ESO) and the Port of Duqm, quickly mobilised a team and equipment to travel from Muscat to Duqm, reaching the Port on the following day.  With assistance and personnel from Oman’s Coast Guard, Royal Air Force of Oman (RAFO) and the Port of Duqm, as well as real-time advice from members of the IWC disentanglement expert panel, the team spent the afternoon of the 19th initiating disentanglement.

 

Click here to watch a video clip of the response.  This shows the team in the day’s last light, attaching buoys to slow the whale down and the prevent it from diving while the team was working to remove the net. During this intervention, the team noted that as the whale attempted to dive, the upwards force of the buoy helped to unwrap rope and net from the mouth, followed by more rope being dislodged from the flippers and area around the dorsal fin. By the end of the day it was apparent that the only net remaining was on the tail stock.

 

Video and photographs of the whale during the disentanglement allowed the research team to recognise it as one of the individual whales catalogued in a long-term photoidentification study that has been undertaken in Oman since the year 2000. The whale was identified as individual ‘OM11-016’, which was first photographed near the Port of Duqm in 2010, and then again further south near Hasik in 2011 and 2014.  Most recently this whale had been observed again just outside Duqm Port in October 2020.

 

On January 20th, when the rescue team returned to the scene to continue the disentanglement, the whale was no longer in the port. Neither a search of the immediate area using port pilot vessels nor a helicopter search by the Royal Air Force of Oman detected the whale. However, video shared by a coastguard vessel showed a whale swimming freely in the port later on the day of the 20th. Although the video footage did not allow for definitive identification, the habitual appearance of this whale in the port over the last 3 months, the absence of detections during the aerial search, and the observations of the net unwrapping on the previous day all led the team to conclude that this was likely the same whale, and that the actions taken on the 19th had enabled the animal to shed the rest of the gear and swim free.

 

With fewer than 100 individual humpback whales believed to remain off the coast of Oman, the incident highlights a number of issues of critical importance to efforts to protect the regional humpback population and prevent its extinction:

 

  • Published research, satellite tracking data, and the sighting history of OM11-016 and many other whales in the Oman catalogue indicate that whales have a strong affinity for the Gulf of Masirah and the approaches to Duqm Port.
  • This highly productive area is also a known hotspot for intensive artisanal fishing, with some vessels (referred to locally as dhows) used to set gillnets similar to that found on the entangled whale. These nets are regularly set within the core feeding grounds of humpback whales and are intended to catch large finfish that feed on smaller fish like sardines, which are humpback prey.
  • Similar gillnets are used throughout the Arabian Sea by registered legal fishing fleets as well as illegal, unregulated and unreported fleets. Scientists in the Arabian Sea Whale Network have reported entanglements off Oman, Pakistan, Iran and Somalia. In some of these incidents, fishing crews have attempted disentanglements that are extremely dangerous, such as hanging from ropes and entering the water with whales, highlighting the need for more training and guidance throughout the region.
  • A recent study found that 67% of humpback whales photographed off Oman have scars on their tail stock consistent with entanglement.
  • Ship strikes represent a persistent threat to Arabian Sea humpback whales and other whale species in the region. FOES spent 3 years working with the Port of Duqm to develop and implement a Whale Management and Mitigation Plan, something that could be adapted for application to other ports in the region. Click here to see one of the key outreach tools used in this plan.

A photo shared on social media of a fisherman from an Iranian vessel operating off the coast of Somalia, attempting an extremely dangerous rescue of a female humpback whale as a calf swims nearby.

Baleen whales in the cross hairs: potential for increased ship strike risk in and near Bering Strait

Currently trans-Arctic shipping is conducted along the Northern Sea Route (NSR) and the Northwest Passage (NWP), with a Transpolar Sea Route (TSR) anticipated by mid-century1.  The NSR, which extends from the Barents Sea to the Bering Sea, is roughly 40% shorter than commercial sea routes through the Suez Canal.  Shipping along the NSR increased from 10.7 million tons in 2017 to a record-breaking 32 million tons in 20202.  To date, most shipping along the NSR has occurred from July-November, with peak traffic in September coinciding with minimum annual sea ice cover. With continued loss of sea ice, commercial shipping across all routes likely will increase in terms of both rates of passage and season length, as exemplified by the first-ever voyages of liquid natural gas (LNG) tankers along the NSR in January 2021.

All trans-Arctic shipping routes converge at the narrow (85 km) and shallow (50m) Bering Strait1.To navigate safely, ships must travel along a constricted route as they approach and depart the strait, making these waters especially perilous for large whales that migrate through and feed in the area.

The migratory habits of the Arctic endemic bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) have kept them mostly out of harm’s way, as the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort population of bowheads generally spends the summer months in the Beaufort Sea.  Conversely, sub-arctic species including gray, humpback, fin and minke whales are now common near the Bering Strait region during summer months.  One source of recent sighting data is a ‘marine mammal watch’ conducted as standard protocol during research cruises that comprise the Distributed Biological Observatory (DBO)3.  Collectively, baleen whale sightings from DBO cruises conducted from July-October 2009-2019 showed the concentrated distribution of gray whales north and south of the Bering Strait, with humpback, fin and minke whales frequently seen primarily north of the strait (Figure 1).  All species in the region are there principally to feed in summer, thus less likely to be responsive to oncoming ships and therefore at risk of injury or death by ship strike.

Figure 1 – Gray, Humpback, Fin and Minke whale sightings on DBO cruises, 2009-2019

A number of international efforts to mitigate risks to baleen whales from ship strike are under way, the most relevant being the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA), a project of the Arctic Council PAME Working Group4.  Goals of the AMSA are bolstered by work in both the Conservation and Scientific Committees of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to reduce ship strikes on baleen whales worldwide5.  To support the goals of these international organizations, the marine mammal sightings initiative of the DBO should be expanded to include experienced observers on more research and commercial ships passing through Bering Strait.  This effort to increase visual sightings should be coordinated with passive acoustic detection efforts in near real-time to better mitigate ship-whale interactions.  At present, such multi-faceted ship strike mitigation efforts are focused solely on endangered species at busy ports (e.g. North Atlantic right whales in Boston Harbor), but existing technologies could and should be brought to the Bering Strait gateway soon.

Links

1 https://oceanconservancy.org/ls/shipping-bering-strait-region/overview/

2 https://thebarentsobserver.com/en/arctic/2020/12/shipping-northern-sea-route-breaks-record

3 https://arctic.cbl.umces.edu/

4 https://www.pame.is/projects/arctic-marine-shipping/amsa

5 https://iwc.int/ship-strikes

 

Vaquita update October through December 2020

Searching for vaquitas through the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s newly purchased ‘big eye’ binoculars. This specialized scientific equipment is part of an increasing scientific conservation effort by SSCS.

Despite the many challenges presented throughout an exceptionally difficult year, a few vaquitas continue to survive.  Cooperative fishermen who participate in the vaquita acoustic monitoring program deployed detectors from September 7 to 12 of 2020 in the Zero Tolerance Area (‘Critical Zone’ on the map figures). A total of nine acoustic encounters were recorded.  In a joint effort with the National Commission for Natural Protected Areas, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) sponsored a downsized visual survey effort from the SSCS ship in November 2020 with two experienced observers from previous vaquita surveys. Despite this small expedition being challenged by unfavorable weather conditions and a vast number of pangas present, two separate sightings of vaquitas were made during the 8 days of limited effort.

 

A group of pangas with gillnets on full display in daytime despite this gear being illegal within vaquita habitat. Credit Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

SSCS deployed 2 ships to attempt to safeguard vaquita habitat.  Efforts focused on the Zero Tolerance Area, but all panga activity within range of radar units was recorded.  Illegal fishing increased with the onset of shrimp season in October 2020 (Figure 1).  The vaquita sightings were obtained despite the presence of 1185 pangas that were counted throughout November, with the most observed simultaneously being over 60 (Figure 2).  Nearly all of these pangas were gillnetting for shrimp.

The Government of Mexico arrested some of the leaders of totoaba poaching who are now waiting in jail to go to trial.  Despite these arrests, illegal fishing remains at high levels and takes place day and night (Figure 3), with repeated harassment of net-removal crews.

 

Figure 1. Panga positions in October 2020 where each color represents the approximate number of pangas observed from the survey vessel at a given time and location. Yellow dots indicate individual pangas that were confirmed to be fishing. SSCS effort was concentrated in the Zero Tolerance Area (outlined in red but labeled as the ‘Critical Zone’ in the map legend). Source: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society Internal reports, October 2020

Figure 2. Panga positions in November 2020 where each color represents the approximate number of pangas observed at a given time. Effort by net-removal vessels that reported panga positions was concentrated in the Zero Tolerance Area (outlined in red but labeled as the ‘Critical Zone’ in the map legend). Source: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society Internal reports, November 2020.

Figure 3. Panga positions in December 2020 where each color represents the approximate number of pangas observed at a given time. Effort was concentrated in the Zero Tolerance Area (outlined in red but labeled as the ‘Critical Zone’ in the map legend) but fishing was observed widely in the Vaquita Refuge (inset). Source: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society Internal reports, December 2020.

Fishermen have no incentives to change their traditional fishing practices — very little alternative fishing gear, and few alternative livelihoods to feed their families. Illegal fishing remains uncontrolled. There were no net-removal efforts at the end of the last totoaba season (May 2020) due to SSCS and the Museo de Ballena having to leave the area on 22nd March due to the evolving global pandemic, which hit the Mexican villages of San Felipe and El Golfo de Santa Clara very hard. Many fishermen and their families became infected. We especially honor Paco Valverede who succumbed to the virus. Paco learned from his father and his family of fishermen how to fish and he loved and respected the ocean. He studied biology but always remained faithful to his origins as a fisherman. He fought long and hard for conservation of marine life and environmentally responsible fisheries in the Upper Gulf of California. Those who knew and worked with him considered Paco indispensable and irreplaceable, a true hero and a friend of vaquitas.  For more details, see https://www.facebook.com/VaquitaCPR/posts/2819580278146115

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