Campaign aims to help NSRI rescue whales

WHALE WARRIOR: Dr Deborah Roberts-Andersson presents her talk at the EL Aquarium on June 29. Pictures: TAMMY FRAYStakeholders in the whale conservancy space, including the EL Aquarium are marking the local migration of the southern right humpback whale with a campaign to raise funds to supply the EL NSRI with a whale disentanglement kit.

Valued at R70,000-R150,000, the whale disentanglement kit will enable the local NSRI volunteers to respond to whales in distress and contribute to national efforts to protect marine life.

Local whale entanglements are mainly caused by abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear and nationally lobster, shark and octopus fishing traps also contribute towards entanglements.

Specialist marine biologist, Dr Deborah Robertson-Andersson and Monica Maroun from the Bay Action Programme have spent five years tracking the southern right humpback whale’s migratory journey with a journey of their own across our continent, starting in Kenya, along the SA coastline, to end in Namibia.

Their travels keep pace with the whales’ migration and at every city or country they arrive at, they host a series of informative talks.

This year they have merged their talks with a national campaign to raise funds to supply all 19 NSRI stations with whale disentangling kits and on June 29, they arrived at the EL Aquarium and then headed towards Hermanus.

Only 14 of the 19 stations are equipped to handle disentanglements.

Initially, whales were hunted for their commercial properties and in the 1970s only 300-500 southern right humpback whales were left.

The discovery of crude oil crude oil rendered whaling unnecessary and the southern right humpback whale population has burgeoned to between 35 000-40 000.

Though this recovery is considered a success, the accelerated growth of the species has led to more entanglements.

These cause severe injury to the whale or death by drowning and affects both feeding abilities and reproduction success.

Should they survive, a sudden increase in drag that the whale now experiences means it cannot dive to feed and risks a slow and painful death by starvation or infection.

Entanglement around the whale’s flippers results in open wounds and septicaemia, while rope also locks the jaws closed, preventing feeding. It has been shown that it takes on average six months for an entangled whale to die.

The SA whale disentanglement network, set up in 2006 has released 212 whales, noting that entanglements increase by 15% every year.

This year, NSRI stations have successfully performed six whale disentanglements.

These are performed by trained volunteers and require the efforts of two teams armed with a kit that includes specialised knives and hooks at the end of long poles to free the whales from nets, ropes or buoys while being careful not to cause harm to them.

Marc de la Porte from NSRI said that in the last three years, stations in the Western Cape have rescued close to 40 whales from entanglement.

De La Porte said: “It is important to note that we also regularly assist with seal, shark, bird as well as turtle entanglements.”

Dr Robertson-Andersson said that in addition to the whale disentanglement kit, civil society must lobby for changes at material and policy level, to be made in the fishing gear used for lobster traps, shark nets and octopus traps.

Dr Siani Tinely, curator at the EL Aquarium encourages the public to donate towards the Ocean Lifeline project hosted by the aquarium and proceeds will be distributed towards the NSRI for the kit.

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