November 19, 2018
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Dozens ‘horrified’ witnessing humpback whale thrashing to escape fishing net in Gulf of Maine

Blue Ocean Society photo courtesy of Portsmouth Herald
Blue Ocean Society photo courtesy of Portsmouth Herald
The humpback whale known as "Owl" is seen caught in a fishing net off the Isle of Shoals Thursday afternoon.

A group of 85 whale watchers witnessed humpback whale “Owl” thrash for 50 minutes while caught in a fishing net Thursday afternoon off the Isles of Shoals, said Peter Reynolds who led the tour.

“She’s my favorite whale,” Reynolds said. “I thought she was going to die, to be honest.”

Dianna Schulte, research coordinator and co-founder of the Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation, was on board and said the fishing net was deployed off a “purse-seiner” vessel, and the net “completely encompassed the 32-year-old humpback.”

“The fishermen were aware of the whale in the vicinity and still deployed their net, which was towed by a smaller boat to encircle a school of herring that was being preyed upon by the 45-foot humpback whale,” Schulte said. “Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation staff was aboard the whale watch boat. Humpback whales are a protected species that was listed as endangered just two years ago. Clearly, they still face threats from humans.”

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Schulte said the crew on the whale watch boat had a combined 65-plus years of whale-watching experience, including three Coast Guard licensed captains on board, and they had “never seen such a blatant whale harassment case.”

She said the incident was reported and is under investigation by NOAA Law Enforcement.

Reynolds said the fishing crew continued to try to haul the net while Owl was caught and “in obvious distress” and his passengers were “horrified.” He said Owl is identified by a divet on her back from when she was struck by a boat when she was young.

“She was flailing around, splashing and she was trying to get out,” he said.

Portsmouth attorney Phil Desfosses said he was tuna fishing in the area when he heard marine radio traffic during the 50 minutes Owl was entangled and “people were going crazy.” He criticized the overfishing of herring and said the fishermen should have known there were whales there because of on-board technology.

“I think it’s extremely reckless of them to place a whale in danger,” he said.

Reynolds said there were 12 humpback whales in the area at the time and the net was intentionally set in spite of that.

“It was pretty brazen for sure,” he said.

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A Coast Guard spokesman said a Coast Guard boat patrolling at the time, about 2:15 p.m. Thursday, responded to the incident, took 40 minutes to get there and by the time it did, the fishing net had been lowered, Owl was freed and unharmed.

Schulte said the fishing boat eventually dropped part of its net “and the humpback whale eventually fled at a rapid rate of speed.”

“Humpback whales are known to become entangled in fixed fishing gear, unattended gear that is left anchored for days on end, and the majority of humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine exhibit scars from such encounters,” she said. “This is an extremely rare event to have a fishing vessel actually set its net around a whale while multiple whale watching and fishing boats were in the area. However, the Western Wave and a second purse-seine vessel were seen and reported just two weeks ago for the same activity off of Cape Ann, Mass.”

Schulte said herring seiner boats have “inundated the area in recent weeks in response to the number of whale sightings close to shore.”

“Whales are attracted to the area to feed on small schooling fish such as herring,” she said. “Seiners target herring, which are commercially used as lobster bait, in cat food and as fertilizer.”

Schulte said Owl is one of four humpback whales featured in Blue Ocean’s Adopt-a-Whale program. For information, she said, visit Blue Ocean Society at blueoceansociety.org.

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