A dead humpback whale that washed ashore on the north coast of Scotland late last month was entangled in fishing gear from Nova Scotia.
Fishermen first spotted the nine-metre juvenile male off the coast on May 27, and it drifted ashore on a beach in Scrabster on May 30.
Rope was wrapped around it, pinning its left pectoral fin tightly against its body.
Ellie MacLennan, the co-ordinator for the Scottish Entanglement Alliance, said the case was initially “a bit of a head-scratcher,” since the gear didn’t look like regular Scottish creel rope.
When observers looked more closely, they found a buoy marked with its owner’s name and number, which were traced to a Nova Scotia lobster fisherman.
MacLennan said it’s possible the humpback became entangled near Nova Scotia and swam across the Atlantic with the gear, but she said that’s unlikely because its injuries weren’t consistent with dragging the gear for 4,000 kilometres.
She said it’s more likely the Nova Scotia rope and buoy were “ghost gear” — equipment that was lost and drifting somewhere in the Atlantic when the whale became entangled.
A necropsy on the whale determined its cause of death was drowning, based on the large amount of liquid in its stomach and lungs.
“Although it’s sad, hopefully this animal died relatively quickly. It didn’t suffer for a long time,” MacLennan said.
The young whale also had lesions on its tail, suggesting it had been entangled previously. But it had good body condition and had eaten recently.
Members of the Scottish Entanglement Alliance contacted the Nova Scotian owner of the gear, who was “incredibly upset and devastated.”
“He was very upset. He was very thankful that he had been informed of the situation,” MacLennan said. “He was very open and honest and forthcoming.”
MacLennan said the organization has promised the fisherman anonymity and is not interested in blaming anyone for the entanglement.
“We understand that every one is accidental and the fishermen are often more upset than any of us when these things happen. I think they have quite a special connection to the marine wildlife they work alongside and they are really devastated when things like this happen.”
However, MacLennan said there’s a lesson to be learned from the whale’s death.
“I think cases like this highlight the global issue that there is with entanglement. I mean, gear can be deployed in one area and have an impact thousands of miles away.”
While the number of entanglement cases in Scottish waters has been relatively low over the past 20 years, MacLennan said it seems to be on the rise. However, she said it’s possible that more people are simply spotting and reporting them.
The north of Scotland has “had a pretty unusual run” of entanglements this year, with four fatal entanglements and a fifth entangled whale that has been spotted swimming in the area, MacLennan said. Those entanglements have included two humpback whales and three minke whales.
MacLennan said industry and conservationists in Scotland have been keeping an eye on U.S. and Canadian efforts to prevent entanglements.
“You guys are much further ahead than we are with your work to prevent entanglement, and so we’re looking at what you guys have been doing over there and seeing if anything that you have trialled may fit the fishing industry here.”