A whale of a rescue. Canadian animal expert frees whales trapped in fishing nets off the coast of Newfoundland
St. John's, Newfoundland
JON LIEN moved his index finger up and down, showing how he controls a 40-ton whale with a small rope. Another fishing story?Skip to next paragraph
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No, says the animal behaviorist. ``That is literally true.''
In the past 10 years, Mr. Lien has rescued hundreds of whales from the nets of Newfoundland fishermen in a program designed to save both expensive fishing equipment and the lives of marine mammals. He's learned how to calm and manage the whales as he untangles them from the lines. While figuring out how the animal is caught, he may shift the whale by tugging slightly on the entangling ropes, something the whale feels.
When first trapped, a whale will struggle hard to free itself, possibly injuring itself on the polypropylene rope or other strong materials used in modern fishing gear. Once it finds it cannot escape, the animal becomes still on the water's surface.
``Humpbacks are sort of sissies,'' he says. ``They don't do things to hurt themselves. Most smart animals learn to minimize pain and punishment. You get control of the animal. You can move him this way or that way. It is only because of their size that it seems impossible.''
Most humpbacks cooperate
Last summer Lien got his first dunking in the cold ocean by an agitated humpback. The fishing equipment was wrapped around its tail. As Lien attempted to untangle the mess, he and his rubber boat went flying into the air when the whale flipped its fluke.
A fisherman captured the episode with a video camera. With only his dignity hurt, Lien towed the heavy beast to the rocky beach where it could not move its tail, removed the netting, and pushed the whale back out to sea. It swam away.
But normally this psychologist, from Memorial University of Newfoundland, finds that the humpbacks remain quiet while he works to release them. Indeed, he usually parks his outboard-powered boat on the back of a creature as he tries to figure out how it is caught. Sometimes the netting runs through an animal's mouth, like a bridle. Or the whale may have gotten its long side fins or tail entangled.
Lien circles the creature for as much as an hour to get it used to the presence of the rubber boat and its occupants. Then he puts down an anchor and brings the boat up to the whale, ready to haul away should the animal signal by cocking its tail or arching its back that it is going to thrash about or dive.
If the tail is caught and the whale refuses to bring it to the surface for untangling, Lien will sometimes use a sharp hook on a pole, much like a mahout handles an elephant, to get its tail up. The release can take as little as 15 minutes.
Some observers of a whale rescue have speculated that the creature knows it is being helped. As an animal behaviorist, Lien is not so sure. But he does say of an untangling, ``We cooperate with them as much as they cooperate with us.'' The whale usually allows Lien and the fisherman, if necessary, to put their feet on its back while they pull the net free. Sharks less easy to control
In contrast, basking sharks, which are not so intelligent, cannot be controlled when they get caught in nets and traps. So these 25-foot-long fish are generally killed and their meat is sold by the fishermen. Their fins are sold in the Orient to make shark's fin soup. Their livers, which can weigh a ton, are shipped to Norway for extraction of oil that has a number of industrial uses. The fisherman can earn more than $1,000 for his effort, a sum that can more than offset damage to his nets.
Last summer one fisherman marked both his birthday and 25th wedding anniversary by releasing alive one of these huge but harmless creatures. Lien persuaded him to tag it first.
``Few inshore fishermen can afford such costly celebrations too often,'' notes Lien, referring to the fact that Newfoundland's 26,000 inshore fishermen have a meager cash income of $6,000 to $9,000 a year (Canadian; US$4,800 to $7,200).