Help For Right Whales Entangled In Fishing Gear

Thanks to a new sedation delivery system, more endangered North Atlantic right whales may be saved from a slow, painful death as a result of entanglement in fishing gear, Science Daily reported in March.

Though some whales manage to free themselves, the struggle could last for months, seriously compromising the animal’s daily functions. Ones who can’t free themselves face being repeatedly approached by rescue boats, where the disentanglement process is often hampered by the stress and struggling of the 40,000-pound animals. Because the whales can become fearful and unapproachable, these rescue efforts succeed only about half the time. Disentanglement could take several days, and the longer the process, the less likely the whale is to survive.

Though sedation attempts had been tried on whales before, the techniques were problematic, causing the whale less pain in the freeing process, yet failing to mitigate stress or struggle. A new system, however, was recently built by Trevor Austin of Paxarms New Zealand, consisting of a 12-inch needle and syringe driven by compressed air. The system was tried out on an entangled 40-foot North Atlantic right whale in March, whose jaw and lip were being cut by heavy line. The drug was injected intramuscularly, and the animal ceased to fight his rescuers, allowing them to remove 90 percent of the gear that the whale had been dragging around since January. Since there are less than 400 North Atlantic right whales left in the wild—a direct result of commercial whaling—each rescue is of heightened importance.

“This use of sedatives in a large, free-ranging whale is novel and an exciting new tool in the large whale disentanglement toolbox,” says Michael Moore, a veterinarian and research biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. "However," he warns, "it does not address the underlying problem of how to enable fixed-gear fisheries to pursue a profitable business without jeopardizing the survival of endangered species, such as the North Atlantic right whale."