Guest Blog: Disentangling a whale of a problem

Whale MPAs

In this guest blog, Coastal Communities Network member Ellie MacLennan updates us on her recent trip to the USA and Canada, to understand more about whale entanglement and how this risk can be mitigated successfully.

Earlier this year, I spent six weeks in the USA and Canada as a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellow, to learn more about how the issues surrounding large whale entanglement in fishing gear are being tackled.

Why did I go? Because globally over 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoise are killed each year because of incidental capture (‘bycatch’) in fishing gear. Not only is this a concern from an animal welfare and conservation perspective, but it can also result in economic losses for fishermen through lost catches, and time spent looking for and replacing lost and damaged gear.

A growing problem

Here in Scottish waters, marine mammal entanglements in lines associated with the creel fishery are a growing problem. It is believed to be the single largest cause of death of minke whales (up to 40%). A recent International Whaling Commission publication found that presently our inshore waters could not sustain a viable population of humpback whales due to the high entanglement risk.

Although the problem has been recognised and work is underway to try and reduce the threat, lessons can and should be learned from the USA and Canada. Some of the world’s most experienced and busiest disentanglement teams operate here, and various means to try to reduce entanglement are being researched and tested.

So far there have been successes, failures, triumphs and tragedy. During my visit I gained valuable knowledge and a whole new skill-set, which I have now brought back to Scotland to try and further mitigate this problem here.

Disentangling a whale of a problem
© Wayne Ledwell, Whale Release and Strandings.
Entangled humpback whale in Newfoundland inshore waters. This humpback was successfully released and the fishing gear was recovered, repaired and returned to the fisherman it belonged to.


My Fellowship began in California, where I met and worked with members of the California Whale Rescue Team, federal agents with the National Marine Fisheries Service, and Fishermen. Many of them are also members of a so-far-very-successful working group.

The group was set up in 2015 to give all those affected by and involved in the entanglement issue an open and equal platform to voice their concerns, ideas and opinions on how best to tackle it. A number of exciting and innovative voluntary measures and joint initiatives have already evolved out of this group.

Cape Cod

Next, I flew across country to Cape Cod where I spent two weeks at the Provincetown Centre for Coastal Studies. This is where many of the methods and tools used to disentangle whales (which were adapted from whaling techniques) were first developed in the 1980s, and where the only full-time disentanglement team in the world is based.

Much of my time here was spent training with this team, who not only respond to entanglement call-outs, but also contribute significantly to scientific research surrounding this issue.

I also met with Engineers from a research facility currently developing ‘ropeless’ fishing systems, representatives from international animal welfare and conservation organisations, and with Fishermen fishing in Cape Cod Bay. My meetings with the Fishermen were to learn how they have been affected by regulations brought in to try and mitigate the entanglement risk, and their feelings and opinions towards other organisations and agencies involved.

Disentangling a whale of a problem
© Ellie MacLennan, John, Richard and I, San Fransisco.
John and Richard are both Dungeness crab fishermen and members of the Dungeness crab fishing gear working group. They are currently involved in new gear trials and have been actively involved in a fisherman-led gear buy-back scheme to retrieve abandoned and derelict fishing gear from California coastal waters.

Nova Scotia

I then flew to Nova Scotia to attend the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium and the Society for Marine Mammalogy conference, where marine mammal entanglements and by-catch were a hot topic.

I finished my trip in Newfoundland with the Whale Release and Strandings team led by Wayne Ledwell, a Fisherman who together with his partner Julie, have adopted a different and successful entanglement response programme.

The fate of the sea

What became clear during my Fellowship was just how inherently difficult this issue is to tackle. No-one wants to entangle whales, but tensions were rife between and even within groups affected by these incidences.

This is largely because of the actions enforced by different agencies and states, and because of differences in individual priorities, interests and personal connections to the marine environment.

Fisheries and whales cannot be viewed as mutually exclusive interests – both are ultimately and wholly linked to the fate of the sea.

Scotland is in a position to learn from mistakes made across the pond and become a leader in successfully addressing this issue. But, this will require adequate funding, communication and mutual respect between all parties, and a fully inclusive approach.

For more, visit Ellie’s fellowship facebook page and British Divers Marine Life Rescue.

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