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Search for tangled whale continues
By MICHAEL MILLER Staff Writer, (609) 463-6712, E-Mail

LOWER TOWNSHIP - Rescuers who hope to save a whale tangled in fishing gear will use techniques borrowed from the whaling industry.

If only they can find the whale.

Rescuers tracked the yearling right whale, nicknamed Kingfisher, nearly 1,000 miles from St. Augustine, Fla., to the Delaware Bay before a Cape May County fisherman accidentally severed its satellite buoy Friday.

There was no sign of the imperiled whale by late Monday, but federal authorities solicited the help of local fishermen over the VHF radio to report any fresh sightings.

If rescuers find the animal again - a big if given the speed of the whale and the size of the search area - they will use a common whaling strategy to save it.

Typically, rescuers in small boats sidle up to snared whales and snip at the fishing gear every time the animal surfaces to breathe. But Kingfisher is tangled so badly, rescuers have not been able to get to the lines.

"With this severe an entanglement, the odds go up if you can immobilize the whale," said Teri Frady, a spokeswoman for the National Marine Fisheries Service. "It's a pretty serious situation."

If they find Kingfisher again, one of 15 teams based on the East Coast will rush to its aid. Then they will "keg it," or tie large buoys and floats to the trailing fishing line. This is the strategy depicted in the movie "Jaws," said JoAnne Jarzobski, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Coastal Research.

"We have developed a technique for slowing a free-swimming whale. You attach buoys and floats to the fishing gear. This will slow the whale and prevent it from diving," she said.

Then they will try to immobilize the whale further by administering a mild sedative.

"To try to restrain or slow a large free-swimming whale to relieve a large entanglement has never been done before," Frady said. "You want to stabilize the large tail that could flail around and hit rescuers. We're looking at ways to administer a sedative to calm it down."

Northern right whales migrate from Florida to Canada every spring and return in the late fall. There are fewer than 350 individuals, Frady said. A separate species of southern right whale lives in Pacific waters.

Kingfisher is still a baby at 35 feet and 18 tons. It will grow to 50 feet and as much as 60 tons. It was first reported ensnared on March 17 off the coast of Florida. About 7 in 10 right whales get snared in fishing line at some point, Jarzobski said. Many free themselves from the lines, which can leave lasting scars.

"If the animal is young, as in the case of Kingfisher, they will grow into the fishing gear, which will cause deadly wounds," Jarzobski said.

If possible, the National Marine Fisheries Service will track the fishing gear back to its owner to determine whether it was set legally. The agency is trying to develop fishing gear that is less harmful to marine mammals, Frady said.

"We've done extensive work on how the gear is configured. We'd like to make the gear break rather than bind," she said.

Cape May County fishermen said they would not welcome more regulations in an industry heavy with them. But they said they would consider modifying their gear to prevent future entanglements.

"No one wants to see anything suffer. It's a tragedy it got tangled up," scallop fisherman David Wiscott said. "But are we going to shut down fishing in this country because of endangered right whales? There's got to be give and take."

Fishing gear is as varied as the fish it is designed to catch, Lower Township mackerel fisherman Ross Dickinson said. In a lifetime of fishing, he never once snared a whale in his nets, he said.

"Nobody with a heart wants to see anything on the endangered species list disappear," Dickinson said. "I hope they find him. That whale will have to be as lucky (to be found) as it was unlucky to get snared."
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