Dead humpback whale found entangled in empty aquaculture lines

A dead humpback whale was found entangled in empty aquaculture lines near Bella Bella Tuesday —  the second time a whale has been trapped at the fish farm since September.

The dead whale was discovered as staff from aquaculture company Marine Harvest Canada were dismantling the farm’s anchoring system after a previous whale entanglement, said a company statement. In September, another whale became trapped in the anchor lines and was released.

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“Prior to September’s incident, no such encounter had occurred in the company’s 30 years of operation,” said the statement, adding the entire site near Sheep Passage has since been dismantled by Marine Harvest employees.

But fish farming opponents expect to see more entanglements along the coast as the humpback whale population experiences a resurgence. In July, the Pacific Whale Watch Association said researchers believe there are now more than 21,000 humpbacks in the eastern North Pacific, up from about 1,600 when whale hunting was banned in 1966.

“These fish farms are like big cetacean traps,” said independent biologist Alexandra Morton. “They blow rich, oily feed into the pens to feed the salmon, and the wild herring congregate outside and feed on the dust. The fish attract the humpbacks, sea lions, loons — all kinds of marine animals.”

Morton described the anchor lines that trapped both whales as a “giant spider’s web” of ropes going out in several directions.

“Imagine a humpback coming along with its mouth open and running into one of these lines,” she said. The whales often roll over in the water, tightening the ropes.

In the September incident, the whale is believed to have thrashed around in the water for 12 hours before rescuers could cut the ropes. The whale was just able to surface and breathe, but suffered multiple cuts and scrapes from the ropes.

Executive director of the Georgia Strait Alliance Christianne Wilhelmson said whales are “one of a long list of marine mammals” that have been caught in the netting.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada was notified of the whale’s death, while cetacean experts also investigated.

Marine Harvest is “currently surveying all aquaculture sites with similar anchoring designs and engineers are making the required changes to eliminate the risk of reoccurrence,” said the statement.

Marine Harvest globally produces one-fifth of the world’s farm-raised salmon at facilities in Canada, Norway, Scotland, Chile, Ireland and the Faroe Islands.

The company’s B.C. fish farms produce 40,000 tonnes of Atlantic salmon each year.

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