LIHUE — Hawaii had fewer confirmed large whale entanglements than much of the rest of United States waters, according to the recently released National Report on Large Whale Entanglements in 2017.
But still, there were seven whales confirmed entangled in Hawaiian waters in 2017, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Compare that to five confirmed in Alaska and two confirmed in the Southeast Atlantic regions, 29 confirmed whale entanglements in West Coast waters and 33 confirmed in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.
“We use these kinds of data to determine if rates of large whale entanglements are changing,” said Sarah Wilkin, national stranding and emergency response coordinator, Office of Protected Resources, NOAA Fisheries.
Wilkin continued: “It’s critically important to the conservation and recovery of the species to improve our mitigation measures to prevent entanglements.”
Throughout U.S. waters in 2017, there were 76 confirmed cases of large whale entanglements. Of those, 70 entanglement cases involved live animals and six involved dead animals.
“Six died after first initially confirmed entangled and probably includes those that were first seen dead when entangled,” Wilkin said.
Overall, the 76 confirmed entanglements is in line with the national average of 69 (plus or minus 21) entanglements annually, but is a slight decrease in entanglements for some regions including the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and West Coast regions.
Confirmed entanglements in Hawaiian waters rose from five in 2016 to seven in 2017, but that’s a decline from 2014, where 18 whales were confirmed entangled, according to NOAA data.
NOAA officials said they’re still looking at the reasons behind the slight decline in overall confirmed entanglements and say there could be multiple factors.
“It could be attributed to how people are reporting or to environmental conditions,” Wilkin said.
Nationwide, humpback whales are the most commonly entangled species, with 49 entanglements confirmed in 2017. Following the humpbacks, gray whales had 11 confirmed entanglements, the minke whales had seven, North Atlantic right whales were involved in two entanglements and there was one fin whale and one sei whale entanglement.
More than half of all confirmed entanglements occurred in two states — 32.9 percent in California waters (25 entanglements) and 26.6 percent in Massachusetts waters (20 entanglements).
Most entanglements consist of marine debris or fishing gear, like derelict nets known as ghost nets that are discarded or lost in the great blue sea. In 2017, about 70 percent of confirmed cases were entangled in fishing gear — line and bouys, traps, monofilament line and nets.
Another 24 percent of confirmed cases involved line that “couldn’t be attributed to fishery” according to NOAA — line with no evidence of traps, nets or gear associated with fishing.
Two percent of entanglements were caused by non-fishery related marine debris, or were of an unknown origin not related to fishing gear.
“Entanglement in fishing gear and marine debris is a serious conservation and marine welfare issue that involves threatened and endangered species and has population effects,” Wilkin said.
Tackling the big picture of conservation takes a dedicated team of researchers, responders, data processors and communicators.
It’s a collection of people known as the Large Whale Entanglement Response Network and in Hawaii, Ed Lyman is on the front lines when an entangled whale is reported.
“We used to call it the Disentanglement Network Response, but now, for a decade, we’ve been calling it Entanglement Response,” Lyman said. “It’s not just about trying to free every whale, it’s about gaining information, the forensics and the science, and it’s about the safety behind it.”
NOAA reminds the public that responding to a large whale entanglement is very dangerous and the response network is stacked with professionals who are trained on specialized equipment for the response.
But the Large Whale Entanglement Response Network relies on reports of entangled whales from the public. If you encounter a whale that may be entangled, report it by calling the Hawaii hotline at 1-888-256-9840.
Photos and videos of the animal are valuable, if taken from a safe and legal distance, and can provide extra information for responders.