A whale of a rescue. Canadian animal expert frees whales trapped in fishing nets off the coast of Newfoundland

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

JON LIEN moved his index finger up and down, showing how he controls a 40-ton whale with a small rope. Another fishing story?

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.

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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).

Lien calls himself a ``biological arbitrator.'' He mediates between one species, the fishermen, and the whales, sharks, seals, dolphins, and oceangoing turtles that blunder into anchored nets and traps set up along some 1,000 miles of Newfoundland shoreline to catch cod, salmon, and other fish.

Plankton, fish, whales, and fishermen all concentrate in the same biologically rich patches of ocean, says Lien. ``There is a built-in conflict.''

From a fisherman's standpoint, the entrapped whale is a ``marine rat,'' as Lien puts it - both potentially dangerous and a threat to his livelihood in an all-too-short summer season. Humpbacks are responsible for 70 to 90 percent of the damage done to the gear of inshore fishermen.

The first official ban on hunting humpback whales was passed in 1963 by the International Whaling Commission. Since then, experts estimate the whale population in the northwest Atlantic to be about 4,000 to 6,000 - nearly quadrupled since the ban. This leads some experts to believe that the classification of ``endangered species'' should be diminished to ``threatened.''

The fishermen, through the educational efforts of the bearded professor, have learned that a live whale is better than a dead whale. It can generally be removed from the net with less trouble than one that has been killed. If dead, the whale may sink along with the fishing equipment and rise to the surface again only after a week or longer. The fisherman loses valuable fishing time and may still need to dispose of the huge body.

Lien got into the whale-rescue business a decade ago when he received a phone call about a live humpback that had been tangled in a net for three months. He soon learned that both damage to gear and whale mortality were increasing dramatically. Humpbacks had apparently moved inshore to feed on schools of capelin when fishermen depleted the stock of these small fish offshore. The number of fishermen had also increased, and they were using tougher gear more likely to entrap whales. Rescue efforts successful

Today, the mortality rate for caught whales has declined from about 50 percent when Lien started to 7 percent last year, or three of the 44 humpbacks entrapped in groundfish gill nets, cod traps, salmon gill nets, or lobster pot lines.

Each time Lien heads for the site of a whale entrapment, he feels a ``healthy respect'' for the power of the creature, wondering if he will succeed in freeing it safely. Over the summer he was so busy rescuing whales that he had about four days a month to be with his family.

This year he got extra funds from the federal and provincial fisheries departments to hire two fishermen to take on the actual rescue jobs. So far they have been called to the rescue of 55 humpbacks and 12 minke whales (these smaller creatures more often drown when entrapped). The university pays Lien's salary as its contribution to his Newfoundland Institute for Cold Ocean Science.

``This is the first summer I haven't been entrapped myself,'' he says.

Instead of rescuing Newfoundland whales, he has just flown to Australia to show fisheries people there how to deal with entrapped whales in the Great Barrier Reef area. He has helped with the same problem in Alaska, British Columbia, and California.

In California, some conservationists pushed for a ban on fishing as a way of saving whales from entrapment. The fishermen responded with bumper stickers that read, ``Jesus was a gill netter.''

Actually, Lien notes, Jesus was a purse seiner. Lien was pleased to see the fishermen fighting back against conservation extremists. He believes it's vital for conservationists to work with fishermen, not against them.

``Compromise is good for everyone,'' he concludes.

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