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Urgent search for entangled whale continues in Bay Area waters as rescue crews rush to free it

By Gloria Rodríguez and Tim Johns

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    PACIFICA, California (KGO) — For the second day in a row, the search for the entangled gray whale swimming off the coast of the Peninsula continues.

Crews with The Marine Mammal Center and their partners were back out Wednesday looking for an entangled whale in the Bay Area.

The whale, which was first spotted off of the Bay Area Tuesday morning, has its tail caught in a gillnet used for fishing and is dragging a buoy through the water.

“It’s probably around a foot thick of gillnet just wrapped very tightly. We need some very strong tools that will help us cut through that and help to unwrap the lines,” said Kathi George.

George works with The Marine Mammal Center and was on the team that went out to examine the whale on Tuesday.

She says the whale was first seen off the coast of Orange County late last month and was already entangled. Crews have tried to untangle it previously, but say the whale has gotten aggressive and realize that the process may take some time.

The goal is to put a satellite tag on the whale so scientists can keep track of it and eventually untangle it.

George tells us some of the Center’s partner organizations had originally put a tracker and some buoys on the animal to keep an eye on it until it was safe to remove the gillnet.

But after the tracker stopped working, they didn’t know where the whale was until Tuesday.

The Marine Mammal Center says scientists’ goal Wednesday was to find this whale again and tag it. That way, with bad weather expected in the coming days, they’ll be able to continue tracking it.

Crews believe the whale is anywhere between Pacifica and Point Reyes, within about a 70-mile radius, according to George. Drone footage shows the gray whale swimming off the Peninsula coast Tuesday morning.

Somebody spotted the whale near Daly City Wednesday and reported it.

The Marine Mammal Center and its partners have some folks out on a boat Wednesday and people along that stretch looking out for the whale from land.

As of Wednesday afternoon, George says teams haven’t been able to spot the whale again, partly because of foggy weather along the coast.

She tells us it is important to get the netting off sooner rather than later though, as it could eventually be fatal for the whale.

“It could be a slow case of a secondary injury that results from that entanglement. It could be the whale’s inability to feed. It could be its inability to get out of the way of other vessels,” George said.

ABC7 talked to experts with The Marine Mammal Center and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who are working to free the whale.

“This is a roughly juvenile whale,” George said. “It’s 25-to-30 feet. There’s still room for it to grow larger. Entanglements on smaller animals are more concerning because we’ve built things to last, and the whale grows. The entanglement doesn’t grow with the body, so it creates a tighter and tighter constriction. I think, in the case of this particular whale, it has a lot of gillnet that’s wrapped around the tail stock and around its tail. This is going to be a very challenging disentanglement effort.”

News of the whale’s entanglement has renewed discussion over the use of certain types of gillnets and the effects they can have on animals.

In a statement released Tuesday, international advocacy group Oceana called on California lawmakers to pass legislation that would do more to prevent these types of incidents.

“They’re a very non-selective gear type, that have high rates of bycatch and have bycatch mortality, as well as wildlife entanglements,” said Oceana’s Caitlynn Birch.

“Everybody’s upset about this one. But the reality is, is that we’re seeing 20 entangled whales off the coast of California every single year,” said Justin Viezbicke of NOAA. “And so, it’s not just this one whale. It’s multiple whales. It’s not just gray whales. It’s humpbacks. It’s other species.”

In the meantime, The Marine Mammal Center is asking for the public’s assistance in finding the whale.

“If they do see the whale, if they could report it to 877-SOS Whale or call channel 16, the US coast guard, on your marine radio, and standby until trained responders show up. That is the best way to help this whale,” George said.

Experts believe the whale likely came from Baja California and is heading up north to Alaska to feed.

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