On the evening of January 18th, 2021, staff at the Environment Authority – Oman (EA) were notified that an Endangered Arabian Sea humpback whale had been observed entangled in fishing gear inside the Port of Duqm. This information was shared with the Oman Stranding Network. The whale had apparently been trapped for days, with net and line wrapped inside its mouth and around the flippers, dorsal fin and tail stock. This situation was immediately recognised as a significant risk for both the whale and Port operations.
Recalling the entanglement response training that had been conducted by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in Oman in 2015, specialists from the Environment Authority, Five Oceans Environmental Services LLC and Future Seas Global SPC, supported by the Environment Society (ESO) and the Port of Duqm quickly mobilised a team and equipment to drive down from Muscat to Duqm, reaching the Port on the following day. With assistance and personnel from Oman’s Coast Guard, Royal Air Force of Oman (RAFO) and the Port of Duqm, as well as real time advice from members of the IWC entanglement expert panel the team spent the afternoon of the 19th initiating disentanglement.
Click here to watch a video clip of the response. This shows the team in the day’s last light, attaching buoys to slow the whale down and the prevent it from diving during while the team was working to remove the net. During this intervention, the team noted that as the whale attempted to dive, the upwards force of the buoy helped to unwrap rope and net from the mouth, followed by more rope being dislodged from the flippers and area around the dorsal fin. By the end of the day it was apparent that the only net remaining was on the tail stock.
Video and photographs of the whale during the disentanglement allowed the research team to recognise it as one of the individual whales catalogued in a long-term photoidentification study that has been undertaken in Oman since the year 2000. The whale was identified as individual ‘OM11-016’, which was first photographed near the Port of Duqm in 2010, and then again further south near Hasik in 2011 and 2014. Most recently this whale had been observed again just outside Duqm Port in October, 2020.
On January 20th, when the rescue team returned to the scene to continue the disentanglement, the whale was no longer in the port. Neither a search of the immediate area using port pilot vessels nor a helicopter search by the Royal Air Force of Oman detected the whale still towing the attached buoys. However, video shared by a coastguard vessel showed a whale swimming freely in the port later on the day of the 20th. Although the video footage did not allow for definitive identification of the whale, the habitual appearance of this whale in the port over the last 3 months, the absence of any detection during the aerial search, and the observations of the net unwrapping on the previous day all lead the team to conclude that this was very likely the same whale, and that the actions taken on the 19th had enabled the whale to shed the rest of the fishing gear and swim free. In addition, no further sightings of the whale have been recorded since Jan 20th, which, if it were still entangled, might have been expected.
With fewer than 100 individual humpback whales believed to remain off the coast of Oman, the incident highlights a number of issues of critical importance to efforts to protect the species and prevent its extinction:
- Published research as well as the sighting history of OM11-016 and many other humpback whales in the Oman photo-identification catalogue indicate that whales have a strong affinity to the habitat in the Gulf of Masirah near the Port of Duqm.
- This highly productive area is also known to be a hotspot for intensive artisanal fishing, with some vessels (referred to locally as dhows) used to set gillnets similar to that found on the entangled whale. These nets are regularly set within the core feeding grounds of humpback whales and are intended to catch large fin-fish that feed on smaller fish like sardines, which are a prey species for the whales. .
- A recent study presented to the IWC Scientific committee found that 67% of humpback whales photographed off the coast of Oman have scars on their tail stocks consistent with entanglement in fishing gear. Whales can become entangled in both active and abandoned gear. ESO conducted a behaviour change study to address marine wildlife entanglement in fishing nets on Masirah in 2018/2019. The study revealed a low rate of change, highlighting a pressing need to further engage with the fishing community and increase their knowledge of socio-economic and environmental impacts of fisheries. Two awareness-raising videos were created to support the project- a short animated piece and a 5-minute-long feature on the project.
- Similar gillnets are used throughout the Arabian Sea by registered legal fishing fleets as well as illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fleets. Scientists in the Arabian Sea Whale Network have shared incidents of entanglements occurring off the coasts of Oman, Pakistan, Iran and Somalia. In some of these incidents fishing crews have attempted disentanglements that are extremely dangerous, such as hanging from ropes and entering the water with whales, highlighting the need for more training and guidance throughout the region.
- Finally, the incident also highlights the persistent threat of ship strikes to Arabian Sea humpback whales and other whale species in the region. Five Oceans Environmental Services LLC spent 3 years working with the Port of Duqm to develop and implement a Whale Management and Mitigation Plan, a programme that could be further strengthened at the Port of Duqm as well as adapted for implementation at other ports in the region. Click here to see one of the key outreach tools used in this plan.