Nfld. & Labrador

The dangers of ghost gear: 1 whale dead, another still entangled in ocean off N.L.

Two whales were found entangled in "ghost gear" — rope from lost and abandoned fishing gear — this weekend.

Entangled humpback whale in Placentia Bay couldn’t be located

Lost and abandoned fishing gear, or ghost gear, is a major source of plastic and litter in the ocean. These fishermen from the Petty Harbour Fishermen's co-operative on the Midnight Star are retrieving ghost gear from the ocean with captain Michael Hickey. (Submitted by David Hickey)

Fishermen say the discovery of two whales entangled in rope from abandoned crab pots, one off Petty Harbour and another in Placentia Bay, show the danger of lost and abandoned fishing gear, also known as "ghost gear."

Members of the Petty Harbour Fishermen's Co-operative were working to retrieve ghost gear in the ocean from Cape St. Francis to Cape Pine last weekend.

Billy Lee, president of the co-op, says they have a two-year contract with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans for 12 boats to remove the gear from the ocean.

Not only is ghost gear a major source of plastic and litter in the ocean, it can be dangerous to marine life.

On Saturday, Lee said they would haul thousands of pounds of rope, crab pots and gill nets over the long weekend.

 "It's continually fishing," he said.

A lost or abandoned crab pot, with four crab in it, is retrieved from the ocean by members of the Petty Harbour Fishermen's Co-operative. (Submitted by Justin Chafe)

"The gill nets, they're full of crab and sea stars and whatever kind of fish might get tangled up," said Lee. 

"Basically, it's pretty dangerous for the fish." 

Tragically, Bernard Chafe found a dead whale, possibly a young humpback or a minke, tangled in rope and abandoned crab pots they retrieved from the water Saturday.

"We think it was only tangled for the last two or three days," said Chafe, who estimates the whale was about 22 feet long.

Chafe says they were disappointed to find the whale, but said they hope that retrieving the lost gear will prevent the same situation from happening again. 

'No way of knowing'

While Lee said fish harvesters are diligent at taking their gear out of the water, he said there's "no way of knowing" how much ghost gear is at sea.

"Between boats sinking with the gear on them, fellas losing gear because [of] the tide and the wind, and so many factors that can cause the gear to be left in the water."

Lee said they've used marine charts to create a grid that they search systematically for the ghost gear. He said 10 boats, nearly a kilometres apart, drag the grid for eight to 16 kilometres at a time.

Petty Harbour Fishermen's Co-op president Billy Lee unloads lost and abandoned fishing nets from a boat Saturday. (Submitted by Glenda Guest)

He says they also look in spots where they know fishing gear has traditionally been deployed.

"We have one spot that we figured, well, we'd get a lot of gear on the first day, and there was nothing there, only a piece of chain," he said.

In another area, they found gear with trawls on it that was too big for them to pull out of the ocean. He said they'll contact DFO for help retrieving it.

Lee says if they know who owns the gear retrieved, they'll call its owner, and offer it back to them, or store it and dispose of it. 

'Baby humpback whale, dying'

Meanwhile, in Placentia Bay, a fisheries technologist is highlighting the dangers of ghost gear. 

Adam Tempelton is working with the Marine Institute to map the ocean floor. While working near St. Lawrence on Friday, they found a juvenile humpback whale entangled in 200 metres of green rope.

"Here you have the worst thing I've ever seen in my life, baby humpback whale, dying, wrapped in fishing gear," Templeton said in a video posted to Facebook.

At first, Templeton said he thought the young whale was dead.

"I was kind of waiting for it to take a breath … and then it started to swim away from us," he said.

He said the rope was underneath the whale's mouth and front, and it could barely lift its head to breathe.

Templeton said he called the rescue organization Whale Release and Strandings, which advised them to put floaters on the moving whale so they could track it more easily. 

"It's heartbreaking," he said.

"The poor thing, and there's nothing you could do, and I see so much ghost gear in the water and it's just a sin that there's so much around," he said.

This is ghost gear retrieved from the ocean. (Submitted by Glenda Guest)

Templeton said the whale likely had major lacerations and cuts from the rope, and he believes it won't survive.

"The whale tail was white because of lack of circulation and I could see where the tail had started to decompose a little bit."

Whale Release and Strandings searched for the whale in Placentia Bay all day Saturday, but couldn't locate it, which they say is common when an entangled whale is moving.

In a Facebook post Templeton, who has been working on the water in one way or another for 15 years, said "Ghost gear kills. We need to make every effort possible to rid our oceans of this drifting trash."

"It will not [traverse] the Atlantic Ocean and reproduce or teach its [young] the ancient migration routes. Unfortunately, I believe it will soon die, tired, starving and scared," he wrote.

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