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'We're on standby': Team ready to help entangled right whale in Gulf of St. Lawrence

A North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth, Mass., March 28, 2018. (Source: AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File) A North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth, Mass., March 28, 2018. (Source: AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)
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Mackie Greene and his team are waiting for Shelagh to reappear – an entangled North Atlantic right whale recently spotted in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

It can be the longest part of their job, but they have to be ready at a moment’s notice to head out if someone spots Shelagh. Once that happens, Greene and his partners will depart from coast – likely in Shippagan, N.B. – in a Zodiac boat to find and help the elusive creature.

Their target is an adult female right whale which was seen with what seemed to be fishing gear stuck in its mouth on Friday. Greene is the director of the Campobello Whale Rescue Program and he’s helped untangle more than 40 whales in the last 20 years.

“We were notified as soon as it was seen,” Greene said. “We’re on standby. As soon as it’s seen again, we’re in small Zodiac boats. We have the gear all ready. As soon as we get that call, we’ll travel to the nearest port and launch and go out.

“Finding the whale is always the hardest part. It’s a big ocean out there. Often they’re spotted by planes. We hope Fisheries and Oceans Canada can get out to the whale and attach a satellite tag to the whale so we can track it.”

Shelagh is the first North Atlantic right whale spotted in Canadian waters for the 2024 season. The population is in a precarious position as Oceana Canada, an environmental organization, says it believes three calves have already died this season.

“We’re in an unusual mortality event that started in 2017 when you started seeing a steep decline of right whales,” said Kim Elmslie, campaign director with Oceana Canada. “It’s starting to level off. We need to protect the females.

“One (study) found even a minor entanglement for a female right whale can limit her ability to calve. We’re advocating for a transition to rope-less gear.”

Brian Sharp, director of marine mammal rescue and research with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said the leading causes of death for right whales are entanglements and collisions with vessels.

He noted the process of freeing a whale from fishing gear can be a difficult one, but it starts with keeping a fixed eye on the animal so crews can quickly find it.

“The first part is doing an assessment,” he said. “If there’s an aircraft in the area that can fly over the whale, that can give the best assessment of the whale. The key for any team is to spend as little time as possible around the whale. When you’re cutting the rope you’re in a dangerous area.

“You want to make sure you’re making the right cut. These entanglements need to be addressed as soon as they happen.”

Greene said his team relies on old whaling techniques to non-violently get close to the entangled whale, attaching large polyballs to it so it has to slow down and surface, giving the team an opportunity to cut the ropes with poles.

“It’s amazing the strength they have,” he said. “We try to mitigate all the risk we can. We try to keep distance from the whale, we call it the danger zone.

“Ropes around the mouth are the hardest (to cut). Sometimes the whales are cooperative, sometimes it can stretch into hours and days. One whale took five-and-a-half hours to just cut the ropes. Bigger ropes are harder to cut (and we’re) trying to develop new tools to cut those bigger ropes.”

Sharp said the problem with entanglements needs to be addressed soon before the right whale population suffers critical losses.

“If changes are enacted quickly, I can see some optimism,” he said. “If not, I feel we’re staring off the edge of a cliff and soon we’ll be at the point of no return.

Greene noted he’s seen fewer entanglements in recent years and he’s hopeful the fishing community will be able to cut down on the threat to the right whale.

“Fishermen are putting their all into this,” he said. “It’s nice to see that. A lot of members on our team are fishermen. They’re trying to help.”

-With files from The Canadian Press

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