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A double whammy of fatal entanglements this month

So far this month SEA project partners have already responded to three entanglement cases – one with a happy ending involving a humpback whale that was successfully freed from creel gear by SEA partners British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) with assistance from the local fishing community (see previous post). However the other two were not so fortunate and involved a pregnant minke whale and a Soweby’s beaked whale. Here are the details from SEA project partner the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme (SMASS):

Minke whale – Sanday, Orkney

“Another baleen whale found to be a victim of entanglement – this time an adult female minke whale which was found washed up dead tangled in fishing net. This case was found on Sanday, Orkney and comprehensively investigated by some of the SMASS volunteers on Orkney. 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 surf line.

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. In this case, entanglement cost the lives of two animals – the mother and her unborn, female calf. Of course there are situations where gear is lost by accident of misfortune however this case further demonstrates why such interactions between marine wildlife and fishing gear can be both tragic at an individual level and potentially a risk to the population.

In this case, SMASS owe a particular debt of thanks to the team on Orkney, especially Imogen, Emma and Russ who took all the data and samples for this investigation, Robbie who assisted with transportation of samples, and also Smudger and Teri for assisting with photography”.


A reminder of the hazards of ghost gear, this section of net was likely torn away from active gear or discarded- an adult female minke whale in otherwise good health, likely live stranded after becoming entangled in section of net; The mid-term foetus was, sadly, like the dam in apparently healthy condition.

Sowerby’s beaked whale – Gullane, East Lothian

“On the 10th October the SMASS team began receiving reports of a beaked whale stranded on Gullane beach, East Lothian. This was quickly identified as a chronically entangled 4.5m long female Sowerby’s beaked whale with some of the most severe wounds we have recorded.

The animal was in thin body condition and showed severe trauma to the right pectoral fin, large areas of skin loss from the flank, and a loop of thin, green cord embedded around its neck. It had been entangled for long enough that the cord had worked its way right through the skin and blubber layer into the underlying muscle layer. In some places the skin had actually grown over the top of the rope; in others it had set up a deep tissue infection and abscessation. There were goose barnacles attached to the rope, an indication that the entanglement had considerably compromised the swimming capabilities of the animal. Based on the depth of the tissue trauma and the damage to the flank, it is highly likely this loop around the neck had at some point been attached to longer and heavier material. Miraculously, in this state the animal had still been able to feed, although not much and not recently. At some point over the last few days, it appears the rope somehow became wrapped around the pectoral fin, dislocating the shoulder joint and severing the pectoral fin. Unable to swim effectively, and most likely in a large amount of pain, the animal live stranded and died.

This animal suffered for a long time, certainly weeks, possibly months, ending in what we can only assume was an agonising death. This was a very grim case to witness and extremely concerning from both a welfare and a conservation point of view. It’s not possible to work out where the rope came from- it is similar to the type of material used in both recreational and commercial creel and net fisheries, but rather than point blame, maybe we should direct our efforts towards doing something about it? Cases like this are far from OK, so although this is a difficult issue, there are things we can all do to help.

For those involved in the fishing industry, you are in a key position to help bring about change. Please step up here and be part of the solution, for example through initiatives working towards minimising ghost gear and marine debris in the water such as GhostFishing UK and Fishing for Litter. For members of the public; beach cleans are a great start – every piece of debris, length of rope or fragment of net taken off the beach is one less hazard going back in the sea. If you can’t remove it, at least cut any loops- these are particularly lethal, as they can form a noose into which animals become trapped. If you want to know which beaches most need attention in Scotland, you could use our app

This is the tenth cetacean entanglement we’ve seen this year, and one of the worst we’ve encountered. The evidence is the issue is getting worse, affecting an increasingly wide range of species and causing unquantifiable harm and suffering to our marine populations. Everyone is responsible for the current state of our seas. Everyone has the opportunity to improve them. Please take what action you can.

SMASS were kindly offered the use of the necropsy facilities at the National Museums of Scotland for examination of this case. Thanks also to the many people who helped with this case, especially Corinne Gordon and Richard Riddell from British Divers Marine Life Rescue and East Lothian council for helping to recover the animal”.

The injuries sustained by and entangling line removed from the Sowerby’s beaked whale.

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