B.C. coast becoming increasingly perilous for humpback whales

Humpback whale numbers appear to be increasing along British Columbia’s coast, but according to researchers that may not be a good thing.

They say the province’s coast could be getting too dangerous for these whales due to debris.

“[Humpbacks] behave very, very differently from toothed whales like orcas,” Jackie Hildering, a researcher with the Marine Education and Research Society, told CBC’s All Points West.

Because humpbacks don’t use sound to navigate the way toothed whales do, Hildering says they can be extremely oblivious to boats and their gear, especially when the whales are lunge feeding.

Joint research by the Marine Education and Research Society and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) showed that 47 percent of the humpbacks along B.C.’s coast have scarring that indicates they were once entangled in nets and other gear. Even worse, that number only accounts for the ones that have survived. 

In August, a dead humpback washed up near Klemtu, on British Columbia’s North Coast. Although the DFO could not confirm the exact cause of the whale’s death, its appearance did indicate that it was the result of entanglement. 

Photo by Philip Charles

“It was a sad sight to see such a magnificent animal washed up on the shoreline like that. Your attention is taken to the very large wounds on the back of the whale,” a local wildlife guide told CBC News.

He later posted a picture of the washed-up whale carcass to Facebook, where he remarked how rare it was to see a dead humpback as intact as this one was.

Another humpback died just last week after getting stuck on equipment at an empty fish farm on B.C.’s central coast.

Photo by Philip Charles

But because many whale carcasses fall to the sea floor or have decomposed by the time they wash ashore, researchers say that it’s impossible to know exactly how many have died as a result of entanglement.

Not surprisingly, Hinderling says that better education on how fish farms and boating gear can harm whales is needed. In the meantime, there are ways to help.

According to a report from earlier this summer, public sightings of whales in distress play a huge role in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ success in rescuing whales. If and when people spot an entangled whale, they’re encouraged to call the marine mammal hotline, and if possible, stay with the animal until rescuers arrive.

Paul Cottroll, a marine mammal coordinator for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, told CBC that even in these situations, people need to keep their distance from both the whale and the fishing gear.

“You have to have a great understanding of whale behaviour to know when the animal is tired and it’s safe to go in,” he said.