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NOAA Fisheries Disentanglement Team Members Join Right Whale Research Cruise

May 18, 2012

Goal is to learn more about right whale numbers and assist entangled animals encountered

What if whale researchers aboard a NOAA research vessel off Cape Cod sight a whale entangled in line?  Normally they would call it into the Northeast Disentanglement  Program or just reach out for a disentanglement expert, who is along for the cruise. Both Jamison Smith, the program coordinator, and David Morin, his second in command, have been part of the research team for this sighting cruise. They were invited along to document and deal with any entangled animals if encountered.

The dangers associated with disentanglement work, require that responders be trained and authorized under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act in order to assist an entangled animal.

As it happens, an entangled North Atlantic right whale was sighted briefly on May 15, near the northern edge of Georges Bank. After searching for the rest of the daylight hours, the whale was not resighted, and sea conditions have not been good enough for a dedicated search. In fact, the ship had to put into port briefly until the weather cleared.  Researchers will keep an eye out for the animal now that the cruise has resumed.

“If we do get a chance, then we are prepared to assist this or other animals, said Smith. "We have a disentanglement first response kit, which includes specialized equipment and a satellite tag for this purpose."

"If the entanglement appears simple and weather conditions are right, then we would attempt to disentangle the whale on the spot," he said.

However, if in assessing the entanglement, Jamison determines that more resources are needed to free the animal, he would collect relevant information like the condition of the animal and degree of entanglement and then deploy the satellite tag to any trailing gear. Jamison would then reach out to other authorized disentanglement partners to execute an appropriate response.

During this leg of the cruise, research will be focused around the Great South Channel, Franklin Basin & Cultivator's Shoal. The Channel is an area frequented by right whales and a key transit area for ship traffic.

When individual whales are located, they are photo-identified by NOAA Fisheries scientists. The team then determines whether they need to collect a genetic sample from the animal or a health assessment biopsy if the animal's health appears to be compromised. Scientists are also recording information about whale behavior and oceanographic conditions including water temperature, conductivity, and salinity levels.

Given these challenging fiscal times, this is a a great example of how staff from our two offices are collaborating to protect whales.

Be sure and check back on this site to stay up on what Jamison and other NOAA scientists are learning as they complete the survey.

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