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

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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.

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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.