Gray whale entangled in crab trap found dead on southern Washington coast

A gray whale washed ashore dead at Long Beach Peninsula in Washington on April 13, 2018. Photo courtesy NOAA Fisheries

LONG BEACH, Wash. (KATU) - A young gray whale was found dead on Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula Friday.

Researchers from the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network in Oregon and Washington performed a necropsy on the yearling male gray whale. They say a crab trap and ropes were wrapped around the whale’s mouth, pectoral flipper and tail, and the ropes likely killed it.

The researchers say the young whale suffered extensive hemorrhaging where the ropes had rubbed against its body.

The dead whale was reported to the Stranding Network on Friday by John Weldon, a wildlife research volunteer in Long Beach.

"I could tell it wasn’t a stump or piece of wood," Weldon said as he drove his vehicle closer to the whale. "I could see seagulls and some other birds feeding on it."

Weldon routinely patrols the Long Beach peninsula for stranded and hurt animals, and fish GPS tags that wash ashore.

"I saw some lines, some crab pot lines," Weldon said describing the whale's condition. "[There] was some float that was coming out of its mouth, unfortunately."

Biologists arrived Sunday and examined the ocean mammal.

“The whale was in good body condition,” said Debbie Duffield, a professor of biology at Portland State University who coordinates involvement in the Stranding Network. “The entanglement appears to have caused its death.”

State officials are now tasked with trying to dispose of the whale. If the ocean's surf or tides won't sweep away the whale, it's likely to be buried.

Officials say the lines entangling the whale were attached to the buoy from a crab trap, which carried a tag issued by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

NOAA Fisheries, alongside WDFW identified the owner of the trap.

There are no penalties, rather, state officials will work with the fisherman, to place traps in places where they will be less likely to entangle whales.

According to NOAA's West Coast Entanglement Summary, there were 71 reported entanglements on the West Coast in 2016.

Biologists believe that number is much higher because whales are not found or go unreported.

Over the weekend, a team of researchers responded to the Puget Sound where a gray whale was found entangled in fishing gear. After several days, the whale was largely freed.

Based on the eyewitness account and the gear collected, the whale is apparently still carrying a single float from the remaining fishing gear on the left side of its head with fishing line exiting the right side of its mouth in a "clean bitter end" – meaning it can easily pass through the mouth and the baleen. This configuration commonly comes off over time – and is considered not life-threatening.

"[Gray whales] tend to roll when they feed," Cascadia Research stranding coordinator Jessie Higgins told KATU. "They tend to swim around where crab pots are, and a lot of whales will rub up against lines... so it does happen, where they start rolling around and gets wrapped, and it's harder for them to get out."

If you come across an entangled whale, it is extremely important to keep an eye on the animal at a safe distance (to protect yourself and avoid scaring off the whale). Take photos and video, and call 1-877-SOS-WHALe. If possible, it is helpful to remain with the whale until a trained and experienced team arrives.

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