The cutest cut: Australians fight to save humpback whales tangled in fishing nets | whales

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Wayne Phillips has both feet on the ground as he acts out how to free a whale from its trapping gear.

The 51-year-old chief of marine sciences at SeaWorld in Queensland oversees the park’s marine rescue team — four cutters, a coordinator, a captain and a videographer — who untangle humpback whales caught in ropes and nets.

The cutters, he explains, are armed with a gaff — a graphite rod resembling a fishing rod but topped with an inverted knife that doesn’t slice into the whale when it connects — and work in pairs to combat muscle fatigue.

“It’s an arduous process”: Wayne Phillips on rescuing tangled whales. Photo: David Kelly/The Guardian

Out on the water, with a 27-ton giant in distress, the purpose-built rubber boat used by the team stomps and rocks on the waves. The goal for the cutters is to use the gaff to hook the correct rope before pulling back hard to cut it clean.

“You’re stretching out, you’re lunging, and you’re pulling back — and it all depends on where the tail is,” says Phillips. “You might get a shot or two at it, and then the whale might deviate or dive.

“It’s an exhausting process. At the end of the day you screwed up.”

Humpback whale calf rescued from shark net off Queensland coast - video
Humpback whale calf rescued from shark net off Queensland coast – video

Phillips has worked in sea rescue for nearly 28 years, helping dolphins, seals, turtles and other animals when they are ensnared, stranded or sick. Now a growing part of the work is trying to disentangle humpback whales.

Humpback whale numbers have returned from near extinction to around 30,000 in what is widely considered a triumph of conservation. But now the species faces a new human threat: climate change.

As the world’s oceans warm and acidify, humpback whales – like other marine species – are changing their ancient migration patterns in search of food and shelter.

A whale entangled in nets.
A whale entangled in nets Photo: Sea World
A whale calf caught in a shark net in Coolangatta.
A whale calf caught in a shark net in Coolangatta Photo: Sea World

And as they migrate to new areas along the Australian coast, their increasing overlap with the human world can be deadly.

An invisible problem

It is appreciated worldwide 300,000 large whales and dolphins die in entanglements every year, although only a fraction is ever recorded.

Because definitions vary by jurisdiction, what counts as entanglement and what is included in official reports often obscures the scale of the problem.

Australia recorded just 436 whale entanglements between 1887 and 2016, according to records from the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the International Whaling Commission.

However, these records do not include sightings of whales reported by the public or whales entangled in crab tethers. In contrast, only Queensland’s shark control program recorded Caught 80 humpback whales in its networks between 1992 and 2020.

A whale caught in a shark net at Burleigh Heads.
A whale caught in a shark net at Burleigh Heads. “It’s like a ball and chain,” says Phillips. Photo: Blaze Parson

Phillips said there were 28 reports of entangled whales along Australia’s east coast last year, two of which his team was able to help with. He estimates that despite all the efforts of the sea rescue organizations on the coast, only one in five reports is followed.

Across the country, a mix of government agencies and private organizations operate sea rescue teams, each with responsibility for a different area. The SeaWorld team covers an area spanning southeast Queensland and the north coast of New South Wales to Evans Head.

Their work usually begins in June, a few months after the first sightings of humpback whales on their annual migration north off Sydney, when reports of whale towing gear begin to arrive – sometimes many meters long.

They will last until November, when the animals begin their long journey back south, covering 10,000 km to Antarctica.

Phillips says the worst material he’s encountered is nets with chains, as the material is impossible to cut away – although these are rare.

By far the most common entanglements are crab pots and ropes that connect the cage on the seabed to a float on the surface.

A fishing net on a young whale calf in Coffs Harbour.
A fishing net on a young whale calf in Coffs Harbour. Photo: Olaf Meynecke

Because whales don’t navigate by echolocation, they traverse the area, catching a rope in the process. Many will attempt to free themselves by punching or rolling, but often this only ties the ropes tighter.

Over time, the material gathers around the whale’s fluke — its tail — effectively preventing it from hunting as it drags the rope material thousands of miles. A young whale was spotted in Antarctic waters with towed gear In early January, after traveling down the South American coast.

“It’s like a ball and chain,” says Phillips. “Imagine lugging this around while you swim.

“And then imagine someone tugging at it all the time because the water is dragging that gear along. These animals are so streamlined, they’re built to slice right through the water. Every move makes it so much harder for them.

“It really is a slow death for the animals.”

“They see us as part of the problem”

The first step in removing gear is counterintuitive. To cut it off, the team must slow the whale down by attaching floats or buoys to the net it’s following.

It’s a tactic modeled after those used by whalers, and from the whale’s perspective, the sound of an approaching engine is still a cause for concern.

“They’re not always happy that we’re trying to help them, that’s for sure,” Phillips says. “They initially see us as part of the problem. And sometimes we have a very predator-prey relationship with the whale.

“He thinks we’re trying to hurt him, so he thinks we’re the predator.”

This relationship makes any rescue extremely dangerous. A haunted whale may attempt to roll, dive, swipe, or smack its tail and escorting animals, such as whales, may attempt to smack them. B. Adult whales protecting a calf may try to fend off the approaching boats.

Wayne Phillips has worked in sea rescue for almost 30 years.
Phillips has worked in sea rescue for almost 30 years Photo: David Kelly/The Guardian

At least three whale rescue deaths have been documented worldwide. Among the earliest was Tom Smith, who died in 2003 while attempting to free a humpback whale in the waters off Kaikoura, New Zealand. His body was never recovered.

Canadian whale rescue veteran Joe Howlett, 59, was killed in 2017 shortly after successfully rescuing an endangered northern right whale in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Phillips says members of the public should never attempt their own rescue. Even if it doesn’t end in tragedy, it often only makes the animal’s situation worse.

“Their hearts are in the right place, but if they don’t cut everything, it actually makes our job harder,” he says. “If they cut part of the net, the whale swims away pretty well, but unfortunately it’s still a death sentence.

“Any material near that fluke means the whale will eventually succumb.”

The impact of climate change

dr Olaf Meynecke, a whale researcher at Griffith University and the Program Whales & Climate — a joint research project between six universities — says climate change is already having an indirect impact on the number of entanglements.

“It’s the food source that drives everything in whales’ lives, and they migrate for six months at a time every year. That costs a lot of energy,” says Meynecke.

“Their advantage is that they can store energy in the form of fat in their bacon, but that also means they have little time to eat.”

Climate change affects the location and amount of available food.

Meynecke says other whale species have entered waters close to humans, and the same is expected to happen to humpback whales in Australia.

A fishing net on a young whale calf.
A young whale calf tangled in a fishing net. Researchers say whales are venturing closer to humans amid climate change. Photo: Olaf Meynecke

Most at risk are ‘wintering’ whales – usually young, non-breeding females that spend the summer in Australian coastal waters and end up trying to feed near commercial fishing grounds.

Meynecke’s research aims to predict how these changes will unfold by 2050 by comparing whale movements today with those hundreds of years ago.

He says there are signs that whale populations are arriving earlier than expected and are not always traveling as far north as they used to. If this is confirmed, action can be taken to prevent further animals from being lost.

But that would require coordination between governments, academia, industry and the whale-watching public to create more centralized reporting systems, change fishing practices, introduce ropeless fishing gear and ban the use of materials like chain in nets.

That may seem like a tall order, but Meynecke says the legacy of past anti-whaling efforts is a generational shift that has made humpback whales an untouchable part of Australian culture.

“It was a complete change in society,” he says. “Our society has gone from ‘I appreciate whaling’ to ‘I appreciate photographing and paying for whales’.

“Nobody in Australia – not a politician – would ever come up today and say let’s kill the whales. That gives me great hope. It shows an ability to change.”

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