2nd humpback death in 2 weeks worries experts, farmed salmon industry

Three humpback whale entanglements at B.C. fish farms in recent months, two of which resulted in deaths, have whale researchers and the salmon farming industry concerned.

'This is not something that is normal,' says B.C. Salmon Farmers Association

A juvenile humpback was caught in an anchor line at one of Marine Harvest's empty aquaculture sites at Klemtu, B.C. It's one of three humpback entanglements in the past two and a half months. (Philip Charles)

Three humpback whale entanglements at B.C. fish farms in recent months, two of which resulted in deaths, have whale researchers and the salmon farming industry concerned.

A juvenile humpback died last weekend after it became trapped between the inner and outer containment nets at Greig Seafood's Atrevida salmon farm in Nootka Sound.

The death comes just two weeks after another dead humpback was found stuck in equipment at an empty Marine Harvest Canada fish farm on B.C.'s Central Coast. In that case, the whale became entangled in an anchor support line at a site north of Bella Bella.

A third humpback whale was rescued from the same spot in September, but it has not been spotted since, and it's not clear if it survived the injures it suffered.

The cluster of incidents has fish farm operators worried, said Jeremy Dunn, executive director of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association.

"The farmers are quite upset. This is not something that is normal, and they want to take every step they can to ensure this doesn't happen," he said.

More entanglements likely

But whale researchers warn more entanglements are likely because of the growth in the number of humpback whales on the B.C. Coast.

"Three humpbacks entangled in fish farm gear in the last two and a half months. Is this new? Yes, because humpbacks are back in numbers that are unprecedented," said Jackie Hildering, a humpback researcher with the Marine Education and Research Society.

The juvenile humpback was freed from several ropes at the Marine Harvest aquaculture site in Klemtu, B.C. by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, with help from the company and the Kitasoo First Nation. (Philip Charles)

Humpbacks are particularly at risk from fish farm equipment because they do not have bio-sonar like toothed whales, Hildering said. This makes it less likely they will avoid the equipment when they're diving for food.

Fish farm industry leaders plan to meet with experts from Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) next month to discuss the recent entanglements and work on ways to prevent them, Dunn said.

"The experts are telling us there are significantly more humpback whales in the environment, and our farmers need to learn more about the whales," he said. "If DFO determines that there should be some changes made to the infrastructure of the farms, I think our members will certainly do that." 

But Hildering said finding solutions could prove challenging because humpbacks feed on species such as herring and krill that are often plentiful in areas where fish farms are located.