One of three entangled North Atlantic right whales may be on its way to freedom

One of the endangered, entangled North Atlantic right whales is partially free.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans said in a news release that on Thursday, "for the first time in several days," the weather conditions were favourable for searching and attempting to rescue the three North Atlantic right whales that were entangled in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, off Miscou Island, New Brunswick.

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The department said the whale known as number 4423 was seen during a surveillance flight by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration around 10 a.m., and the Campobello Whale Rescue Team then began disentanglement operations, successfully removing gear that was keeping the whale from using its tail when diving.

Attempts to remove additional gear had to be paused when it got dark.

Number 4423 was first seen entangled on July 4 east of Miscou Island, N.B., and is believed to have been snarled before entering Canadian waters, with initial reports indicating it could be a whale first sighted in April entangled in U.S. waters.

This whale was spotted by the Canadian Coast Guard with a rope around its tail and thought to be dragging something heavy.

Surveillance flights continued to search for the two others entangled right whales that were recently observed in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Whale number 4440 has been spotted several times since it was initially seen entangled on June 29, but a disentanglement operation has not been possible, while the third entangled whale first spotted on July 4 by a Transport Canada surveillance flight east of the Gaspe Peninsula, Que., has not yet been identified.

A search and rescue attempt for these entangled whales was hampered Wednesday because of bad weather.

The search and rescue operations involve several organizations and people including on-water support from fishery officers, as well as a research vessel from the New England Aquarium.

Joe Gaydos with the SeaDoc Society out of the University of California, Davis, said these search and rescue efforts is another example where extreme measures to help individual animals in such a small population can benefit not only those individuals but also the long survival of this endangered population.

The department said locating these three right whales is a challenging task because they spend a significant amount of time under water, making it difficult to observe them from the air.

Martin Haulena, head veterinarian at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre, said earlier disentanglement techniques can be successful if they can get to the whales although the process is dangerous, complicated and weather dependant.

In the last few weeks, six whales have died in Canadian waters and necropsies showed that three of the deaths were due to vessel strikes.

A federal study said the measures taken to prevent the animals from being hit by ships and getting caught in fishing gear may not be enough to keep them from being hurt or killed in Atlantic waters.

Several measures have been implemented by Transport Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada to protect these animals, including increasing surveillance, expanding slowdown zones and changing the rules that trigger fishing shutdowns.

The whales number only about 400.

Gaydos however said the department's "multi-pronged approach" is spot on.

"Long term solutions to reduce entanglement like the static zone and changes in fishing gear confirmation are essential," Gaydos said.

"Short term heroic efforts like disentanglement are essential to give the new management efforts time to work."

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