PACIFIC OCEAN -- Karl Peek, skipper of the commercial crabbing vessel Pacific Girl, was heading out of Grays Harbor with his crew in the morning to check gear May 6 when they saw a young humpback, nearly 40 feet long, resting on the surface of the water.
As the boat drew near, the reason for the whale's near immobility became clear: It was tangled in crab pot gear, the trailing floats covered in algae, and barely able to surface.
There is little to no incentive for fishermen to report tangled whales, according to a workshop report on whale entanglement issues held by the National Marine Fisheries Service last November. If anything, there are negative perceptions about reporting entangled whales. Who knows -- it might lead to more gear regulations.
But Peek and his crew stayed with the whale and called the Coast Guard.
When they heard a rescue crew was on its way, they left to check a string of their crab gear dropped not far away. Then they came back.
"We just kept checking on it," Peek said.
When the rescue crew arrived, they stayed to help. Pacific Girl lost hours of crabbing time.
"It cost some," Peek said. "But I didn't care much. It wasn't his fault he tangled up in one of the crab fishermen's gear out there."
Each year since 2000 the National Marine Fisheries Service receives reports of approximately 11 entangled large whales off the California, Oregon and Washington coasts, but the actual number of whales that run afoul of active or inactive fishing gear is likely higher. They go unseen or unreported.
Still, incidents of whale entanglement are rare enough that NMFS hasn't yet pushed for any changes to states' gear regulations. There is a need for good information from researchers and fishermen, said Dan Lawson, a fisheries biologist with NMFS' protected resources division.
Abandoned or lost fishing gear can go "ghost-fishing," meaning it keeps on snaring animals even though no one is using it anymore. Anything could tangle with those nets and lines including boats and active gear.
The humpback's rescue team arrived around noon and consisted of John Calambokidis, Jeff Foster and Erin Stehr of Cascadia Research Collective, a Washington-based non-profit research and education organization. With the help of Pacific Girl, they guided the whale back toward the entrance of Grays Harbor and worked to grab the trailing lines and submerged crab gear.
The whale was being pulled down, but it kept showing its back to the crew, who could see the ropes twisted around its fluke.
"The whale was very approachable and allowed and possibly even initiated very close proximity to the boat," Cascadia Research reported on its website. "The floats had algae growth on them indicating they had likely been on the whale for some time."
Hours later, the crew had hooked the float lines and then hooked the line leading down to the crab pot. They cut the whale free and retrieved the gear. Identification marks on the gear indicated the crab pot was from Oregon waters.
The humpback swam quickly away and was not seen again.
Cascadia Research says the whale was lucky. It was sighted early in the morning and close to the shore, when there was still plenty of time and daylight to rescue it, and the vessel that reported it was able to stay near it until the rescue crew arrive.
In Oregon and Washington, NOAA has a 24/7 hotline to report entangled whales: 1-877-767-9425. For more information, visit tinyurl.com/m7e37sh.