A dead female humpback whale identified by researchers as Spinnaker is towed to a Hulls Cove beach Saturday by the College of the Atlantic’s R/V Osprey from rocks where it washed ashore last Thursday at Great Head in Acadia National Park. COA marine mammal lab Allied Whale performed a necropsy on the animal Monday. PHOTO COURTESY OF ZACK KLYVER

Whale carcass raises questions about rope rules

BAR HARBOR — When the body of an 11-year-old female humpback whale was reported washed ashore dead June 11 on the north side of Great Head in Acadia National Park, a large community of scientists and activists sprang into action. The particular whale, known as Spinnaker, had been entangled in rope in the ocean and freed by teams from the Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) in Provincetown, Mass., three times in her life, including twice in the last year.

A complete necropsy was performed on Spinnaker Monday on a beach in Hulls Cove. Crews used a small excavator to position the carcass while large slabs of blubber were removed and organs examined.

The skeleton will be saved and may eventually be turned into an exhibit.

Courtney Vashro, part of the team at Allied Whale, the marine mammal research lab at College of the Atlantic, works Monday on a necropsy of a female humpback whale on a beach in Hulls Cove.  PHOTO BY LIZ GRAVES

Courtney Vashro, part of the team at Allied Whale, the marine mammal research lab at College of the Atlantic, works Monday on a necropsy of a female humpback whale on a beach in Hulls Cove.

Researchers hope to learn as much as possible about factors that contributed to the whale’s death. Among the researchers on the scene was Jen Tackaberry of CCS, who was part of the team that disentangled Spinnaker last month off Cape Cod and could compare wounds on the dead animal with those she saw recently when it was alive.

“She wasn’t extremely skinny, she was just lethargic,” Tackaberry said of the whale during the disentanglement. “She really couldn’t swim. She was hogtied, so if she moved ahead it cut into her tail. If she tried to swim, it would cut into her mouth. So she was really just swimming with her flippers which is very rare for any whale to do.”

Following an entanglement incident, rope, buoys and any other material found also is examined. “Any gear removed during a disentanglement or a necropsy is held by NOAA Fisheries,” Jeff Nichols of the Maine Department of Marine Resources said. “It is transported under chain of custody protocols to a NOAA specialist who evaluates the gear, re-constructs the entanglement, checks for compliance, tries to determine where it came from or what fishery is involved, and tests it for things like specific gravity and breaking strength. The testing is done at a NOAA facility in Rhode Island, which is where the cases also are archived.”

A new set of regulations intended to prevent entanglements like these by limiting the number of vertical lines between lobster traps and buoys on the surface took effect June 1. The rules are determined by a large representative committee organized by NOAA Fisheries called the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team (TRT). Other rules requiring weak links, marking of gear and sinking rope have been in place for several years.

Maine Lobstermen’s Association executive director Patrice McCarron is a member the TRT. “It’s good to defer judgement until the final results of the necropsy are in,” she said. “There is a lot of interaction between gear and whales and not all of it results in injury.”

The news of Spinnaker’s death reached Allied Whale, the marine mammal research lab at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, just after the team learned of a dead sei whale, a rare species, near Jonesport.

“We got the call from Acadia National Park [reporting the dead humpback later identified as Spinnaker] on June 11 in the mid afternoon,” stranding response coordinator Rosemary Seton said. “We already have a dead sei whale up north, so we thought this was a repeat call or a mistake, because it’s unprecedented to get two large dead whales within three days. We don’t wish that on anyone or any whale.”

A few days earlier, a Bar Harbor Whale Watch trip encountered an entangled fin whale which still has not been found. The whale watch vessel Friendship V found the fin whale in an area of the Gulf of Maine known as Bank Comfort southwest of Mount Desert Rock on the afternoon of Saturday, June 6, lead naturalist Zack Klyver said. About 200 passengers were aboard.

“We assume the whale was entangled for some time, which limited its ability to feed,” Klyver said. “Old line was cutting approximately one to two feet into the leading edge of the right fluke. A combination of buoys and line were trailing behind the animal. While it is likely that the whale was entangled in fishing gear, the gear type and origin is unknown.”

Friendship V remained with the whale according to protocol, traveling slowly, until 5 p.m., Klyver said. “A disentanglement team was not dispatched the following morning because of the distance the whale was from shore and because it was free swimming and not fixed to the bottom. A volunteer effort that was being mounted to search by boat and plane was cancelled. A private citizen who was on the whale watch tour was willing to provide funding for the search, but the weather offshore during the entire week was rough and unworkable.

A boat survey Sunday sponsored by the whale watch company and the College of the Atlantic did not find the whale. “It was a long shot, but it meant a lot to us to do something,” Klyver said. “The Maine Marine Patrol are ready to respond if the whale is re-sighted.”

In a statement, Klyver said he hopes research can find a technological solution to these entanglements. “If we can put a man on the moon, we can find a technological solution involving rope strength or rope-less trap technology or something. Disentanglement is not the solution to entanglement.”

“Whales are a topic that evokes a passionate response from all stakeholders in the Gulf of Maine, and it’s disappointing and frustrating to all of us when an event like this occurs,” said Genevieve Kurilec McDonald, a lobsterman and member of the Lobster Advisory Council for the state Department of Marine Resources. “As stewards of the sea, commercial fishermen have a deep appreciation for the marine ecosystem. Too often, people unfamiliar with the industry are quick to jump to judgment and unaware of the great lengths lobstermen have gone to in order to mitigate the risk of entanglement.”

Liz Graves

Liz Graves

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander reporter and editor Liz Graves grew up in California and came to Maine as a schooner sailor.

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