Spectacular rescue: Gray whale saved from fishing net off the California coast

Co-written with Marine Mammals Program Assistant Lauren Packard

A young California gray whale embarking on his very first migration from Baja, Mexico up to Alaska hit an unexpected snafu off the coast of southern California: he became entangled in a 50-ft fishing net, which dragged behind him collecting debris for a week.  He was spotted Friday night, and then tagged with a buoy (after obtaining permission from the National Marine Fisheries Service).

On Saturday, rescuers spent seven arduous hours alternatively chasing the whale (nicknamed “Bart”) for miles and cutting through the net’s nylon filaments with knives, until he suddenly dove underwater. When Bart broke the surface, he was free. You can watch the dramatic rescue footage below.  


Rescuers say Bart came up to the boat afterward, seemingly to say “thank you.”

And the net? Rescuers recovered it and found a “whole ecosystem”:  a sea lion, a leopard shark, two angel sharks, various crabs, fish, and rays.

Marine debris poses a major problem for marine mammals; hundreds of thousands die each year from entanglement in fishing nets and traps and countless more are maimed or injured. For some critically endangered species—such as the North Atlantic right whale—the death of just a single female could jeopardize the existence of the entire species.

The problem of bycatch is huge and the solutions vary.  In some cases, fishing gear and methods can be altered.  Attaching acoustic alarms – or "pingers" – to fishing nets can alert cetaceans to the presence of fishing gear (or perhaps just annoy them into swimming away.)  Pingers have significantly reduced cetacean bycatch off the coast of California.  In addition, weights can be added to the top of fishing nets that allow small cetaceans to swim over the nets – avoiding entanglement.  Avoiding whale and dolphin migration routes and temporarily limiting fishing in “hotspot” areas for marine mammals are other effective solutions.

And solutions are desperately needed for the 300,000 marine mammals that are killed every year in the throes of fishing nets.  Lucky for Bart, he was rescued, becoming an inspirational story instead of a heartbreaking statistic.