An operation to free a sperm whale ensnared in a fishing net off the coast of Sicily in Italy wasn’t totally successful even after three days. The video of the daring operation to help the mammal is being widely shared online and sparked a debate about the impact of illegal fishing nets.
The Italian coastguard, volunteers from the marine conservation NGO Sea Shepherd and marine biologist Carmelo Isgro have been working to cut the net from around the mammal for days. The whale was caught in an abandoned fishing net in the sea off the Sicilian Aeolian Islands. It was spotted on Saturday struggling to get free of a net usually used for trapping swordfish.
Isgro explained on Facebook that the net had wrapped itself around the mammal from “head to tail” and that the work to remove it has been slow because the animal is skittish. Saying that the animal “is very nervous and does not let herself be helped”, the marine biologist added that the sperm whale began to make longer and longer dives (over half an hour for a single dive).
“I assure you that operating with knives on a 12-meter animal that wriggles like a madman in pain and that has the strength to easily move the 15 tons of its weight is not a trivial matter,” he said, praising his fellow divers’ “incredible courage”. He said it wasn’t easy to spot the mammal once it went out of sight, especially at nightfall.
“The whale seems to have gone crazy,” Carmelo Isgrò, a biologist and diver, told the Italian news agency Ansa on Monday. “We thought that after 24 hours he would get tired, but instead it is not making our job easy.”
It is the second time in less than a month that rescuers have had to free a sperm whale caught in a fishing net.
Biologist Monica Blasi told Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica: “These damn fishing nets are doing a huge damage. I haven’t slept in 36 hours … divers managed to take off some of the net but then it started to move and it became too dangerous.”
Blasi said they attached a light to the whale’s tail so that they are able to see as they try to remove the rest of the net. However, soon after the whale dived and hasn’t been spotted by the rescuers in two days, who are now getting anxious.
Despite searches, the rescuers and coast guards couldn’t locate the distressed mammal.
“We left it many miles north of Alicudi and it was heading north west … the sea is very vast, and unfortunately it is like finding a needle in a haystack. Much of the net that wrapped him from head to tail was fortunately removed by the Coast Guard but still much remains entangled in the tail as he did not let himself be helped,” the rescuers explained.
The rescuers are hoping they will soon spot the whale and undertake the final leg of the operation to set it free.
The Italian Coast Guard said it has seen an increase this year in illegal fishing of sperm whales and since January, more than 100 kilometres of fishing nets have been confiscated by Italian authorities.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, most whale species are facing a high risk of extinction in the wild. More than 1,000 whales are killed each year due to commercial whale hunts.
[With inputs from Reuters]
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