Fishing Vessel's Harassment Of Humpback Whale Could Prompt Federal Penalty

Aug 31, 2018

Whale watchers witnessed a fishing vessel encircle a humpback whale, seen at center, in a net near Rye Thursday.
Credit Blue Ocean Society

A fishing crew from Massachusetts is accused of harassing a humpback whale off Rye Harbor Thursday. A federal investigation could follow.

Dianna Schulte of the Blue Ocean Society was whale-watching in the area Thursday when she says she saw the Gloucester-based vessel Western Wave use its purse seine net to encircle a humpback whale and the herring she was eating.

Schulte knew the whale by sight. The 32-year-old female named Owl – named for the markings on her tail – has been visiting the Seacoast her whole life.

“She was constantly trumpet-blowing, making a lot of noise, thrashing around, splashing her tail,” Schulte says. “She hit the float line a few times with her nose – so definitely she was in distress.”

A male whale was with Owl when the boat began deploying its net. Schulte says that whale appeared to escape before becoming trapped.

Owl is named for the owl eye-like markings on her tail.
Credit Blue Ocean Society

But she says Owl remained in the net for 45 minutes before the vessel let her go.

“[Owl] could likely be pregnant right now, and if she is pregnant, just the stress of that one 45-minute occurrence could possibly cause her to lose her calf,” Schulte says.

She reported the incident to federal fisheries enforcers, who wouldn’t confirm whether they’re investigating.

Schulte says she’s told the same boat was recently seen harassing another whale off Massachusetts – and similar incidents have been reported in the Gulf of Maine this summer.

Humpbacks were taken off the endangered species list in 2016, but are still a protected marine mammal. Harassing them can carry a civil penalty of up to $11,000, a year in prison or forfeiture of a vessel.

Schulte says around 1,000 humpback whales spend their summers in this region, and as many as 30 of them may die each year from being entangled in fishing gear.