Gray whale entangled in fishing net can't feed, scientists fear

NOAA Fisheries and the Marine Mammal Center say the window is narrowing to help a gray whale caught in a fishing gill ne, that was spotted Tuesday off the coast of Thornton State Beach in Daly City. 

New video and photos released on Wednesday show the tangled mess of net and buoys from the gill net that is wrapped around the whale's tail. Gill nets are used in fishing and have a fine mesh that is difficult to untangle. 

The Marine Mammal Center and NOAA Fisheries launched a boat with a rescue team Tuesday. Kathi George, the Marine Mammal Center's Director of Cetacean Conservation Biology, was on the boat and saw the whale up close.

"It's was about 25-30 feet. I would place it as a juvenile, so it's not an adult whale yet, and it was starting to look thin," George said. "It is not able to I'm pretty confident that it is not eating,"

George says the whale was skittish, so they were unable to attach a satellite tracker to replace the one that rescuers had attached on March 23, when the whale was first spotted in Laguna Beach. The first tracker had fallen off as the whale made its way north, on the annual migration path to summer feeding grounds in the Arctic Circle.

"This whale had so much gear on it, it was just mind-numbing," George said.

On Wednesday, the rescue team's boat left Sausalito and returned to the ocean. The team searched from Pt. Reyes to Daly City, hoping to spot the bright red buoys they'd attached to the whale.

"Unfortunately, the fog is hampering our sighting abilities," George said. The team was not able to locate the whale on Wednesday.

"It's a bit devastating that it's entangled. I do hope that they can find a resource and I hope they got a satellite tracker," Sarah Huber of San Rafael said.

Eastern North Pacific gray whales have been the focus of recent studies.

Scientists with NOAA declared an unusually high mortality event in 2019, which has led to a 40% decline in the North Pacific gray whale population. Researchers found the cause was ecosystem changes in the arctic feeding areas, leading to malnutrition.

This North Bay fisherman says he's noticed changes firsthand.

"In the last few years, we've seen fish move around and seals move around and predators move around and ecosystems are slightly changing," Mike Idell of Bolinas said.

NOAA is asking local recreational and fishing boat operators to be on the watch for the whale's red buoys.

Mark Silowitz of Novato is a kayaker and says he has been out in the ocean past the Golden Gate and seen whales up close.

"It's amazing to witness whales, and it's a tragedy they're getting caught up this way and I wish there was another way to bring the fish out of the ocean than a gill net," Silowitz said. 

George says all data they collect will help them understand how to reduce the risk of this happening again.

Anyone who sees the whale or another entangled animal is asked to call NOAA's hotline at 1-877-SOS-WHALE.