BAR HARBOR — A quick response from the Maine Marine Patrol helped a minke whale swim free after it had become tangled in fishing gear near the entrance to Frenchman Bay on Aug. 3.
The whale had rope attached to lobster traps wrapped around its tail and through its mouth, said Marine Patrol Sgt. Colin MacDonald. “We were able to disentangle it just before dark.”
The Bar Harbor Whale Watch (BHWW) boat Friendship V encountered the whale on its afternoon trip, Zack Klyver of BHWW said. They were about two miles southwest of the radio beacon (also known as “racon”) buoy at the entrance to the bay. The whale watch boat stayed with the whale for several hours to mark its location.
When Friendship V had to leave to get passengers back to shore, whale watch captains Brian Silverman and Scott Holbrook came to the location in a smaller boat to stand by near the whale and help Marine Patrol team members who are trained and authorized to do the disentanglement response.
“They stood by the whole time; that was a big, big help,” MacDonald said. Locating the animal and staying with it is a huge part of a disentanglement.”
He and fellow Marine Patrol officers Sean Dow, Tom Reardon and Tyler Sirois arrived in Dirigo from Southwest Harbor with just enough daylight left to see what they were doing.
The fog was an extra challenge, and time was of the essence.
“Minke whales are not as large or as strong as other species like humpbacks,” Scott Landry of the Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) said, “so they can have a harder time pulling the gear up to reach the surface for air. As the tide rises, they may lose a critical few feet before drowning.”
MacDonald and his team were trained by Landry in whale behavior and how to do these disentanglement operations safely. “They have to be able to switch-hit between the different species” found in the Gulf of Maine, Landry said, each of which poses unique challenges for disentanglement response.
Last month, Campobello Island fisherman and whale disentanglement expert Joe Howlett died during a right whale disentanglement. NOAA Fisheries, which oversees the program in the United States, temporarily suspended all whale entanglement response to review their policies.
The Marine Patrol crew had a green light to respond in this case, MacDonald said. “But in light of the recent things happening in Canada, things are very tense right now. We worked closely with NOAA Fisheries and CCS in Provincetown.”
None of the fishing gear was recovered, MacDonald said, but the Marine Patrol team took underwater photos and video of the whale to document the incident.
Those photos enabled researchers at BHWW and Allied Whale at College of the Atlantic to identify the individual, which they had seen in the area earlier this summer.
“We can’t identify a minke whale based on its head,” which is really all you can see above the water, Landry said. That difficulty doing photo ID is part of why much less is known about this species.
“Having the stable, even effort on the part of the whale watch really can play a role in helping us understand the entanglement problem,” Landry said. “In this case, it seems the animal had been in the neighborhood for a while.
While minke whales are not an endangered species, federal regulators track reports of fishing gear interactions for all baleen whale species.
If the whale watch is able to document more sightings of this individual going forward, he said, “that will help NOAA determine whether that was a serious injury or not. They are interested in the fate of this animal, whether it makes its way back into the population.
“It does ‘take a village’ to understand a little bit of this problem.”