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Pregnant whale found tangled in ‘ghost fishing net’ dies in Scotland

‘In this case, entanglement cost the lives of two animals – the mother and her unborn, female calf ...  there is just no excuse for wilfully throwing this stuff overboard’

Harry Cockburn
Wednesday 09 October 2019 16:00
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The minke whale was found ashore on the island of Sanday in Orkney
The minke whale was found ashore on the island of Sanday in Orkney

A pregnant whale has been found dead on a beach in the Scottish islands of Orkney with the remains of abandoned fishing gear entangled in its mouth.

The minke whale was pregnant with a female calf, according to experts from the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme (Smass).

A lost nylon fishing net – of the type of discarded fishing apparatus known as “ghost gear” when found drifting at sea – was found stuck in the whale’s baleen, the plates in its mouth used to filter seawater.

The dead animal, which subsequent examination found had been in good health before encountering the net, was found on Sanday, one of the larger inhabited islands in east Orkney.

Representatives for Smass assessed its carcass, concluding: “The animal was in excellent body condition and pregnant with a mid-term foetus.

“It looked like it had become recently entangled in a section of discarded or lost fishing net – this had become jammed in the baleen and then dragged behind the animal. This would have hugely impaired the animal from feeding or swimming normally, and likely led to an exhausting last few hours of life. Based on the flank bruising and lungs, it appears this creature live stranded and drowned in the surfline.”

Writing on Facebook, Smass warned abandoned fishing gear poses a deadly threat to cetaceans.

“Entanglement in nets and fishing lines is a growing global concern and this case highlights that entanglement risk in these species is not just from rope – lost, abandoned or discarded nets also represent a significant hazard to marine life,” the organisation said.

“In this case, entanglement cost the lives of two animals – the mother and her unborn, female calf. This further demonstrates why such interactions can be both tragic at an individual level and potentially a risk to the population. Of course there are situations where gear is lost by accident of misfortune, but, where it isn’t, there is just no excuse for wilfully throwing this stuff overboard.”

The death of the whale follows a better outcome for another whale also caught in fishing nets off the coast of Orkney the same week.

In that case a humpback whale was accidentally caught, and the fisherman alerted a rescue team who successfully disentangled the animal.

Another humpback whale which was seen entering the Thames estuary in south east England earlier this week was later found dead.

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