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Whale rescuers endangered

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Neil Munshi
Globe Correspondent / July 8, 2008

As hundreds of whale watchers looked on Monday, Scott Landry and his team set out to rescue a 40-ton humpback with a rope looped around its head like a horse’s bridle.

Two miles off Provincetown, the humpback Ebony, who has been spotted regularly for nearly 30 years, surfaced and the watchers snapped pictures. Landry, of the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies’ large whale disentanglement team, clipped the rope with a sickle at the end of a 30-foot pole -- and the animal was free.

On Tuesday, the team was out again to free another humpback entangled near Nauset Lighthouse on the Cape.

Up to 70 percent of all North Atlantic humpback and endangered right whales have been entangled by commercial fishing gear at some point in their lives, according to the Provincetown Center.

Now, the center's whale rescues are endangered, too.

Since the whale rescue program began in 1984, the non-profit group has received about $450,000 in federal funding annually, said Richard Delaney, the center’s executive director. But in October, when the next federal fiscal year begins, it will be operating on $94,000, he said, enough to cover just three months of rescues.

Teri Frady, spokeswoman for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said Delaney’s group is caught in Congress' budgetary stalemate. When the 2009 budget is finalized, Frady said she thinks it is “unlikely there would be no disentanglement funding.”

Still, given the funding crunch, Delaney worries the program, which helps save whales up and down the East Coast, will fold. “At the end of 2008, the same team that is out there in the ocean right now in a very courageous situation will not have funding to continue into 2009 under current budget priorities,” he said.

The center will still continue to provide research and educational opportunities through public and private grants, as well as individual donations, Delaney said.

While whales sometimes swim away after becoming tangled in ropes or traps, they are often prevented from swimming normally, said Moira Brown, senior scientist at the New England Aquarium, a sister organization of the center. If young whales aren’t freed, they can grow into the rope that binds them, she said, and ropes can cut through their skin, muscle and bone. Or, rope may prevent the whale from feeding, leading it to slowly starve to death.

Luckily, Ebony, the humpback rescued Monday, was able to feed freely, surfacing to catch fish -- and giving the team an opportunity to cut her free. The rope was lodged between two plates of baleen in the animal’s mouth, like a stuck piece of dental floss. The short length left over should fall out on its own as she feeds, he said, his cell phone reception fading in and out as he raced out to the second whale.

Ebony joins the ranks of 90 whales saved by the center in the past 24 years, Delaney said, 22 of which were highly endangered right whales, whose total population hovers near 350. “In January, if the right whales come back into Cape Cod Bay, if we have a female who is tangled up in ropes and can’t get free, that is a potential tipping point for the population,” he said.

That’s part of the reason US Representative William D. Delahunt, a Quincy Democrat, has, along with the state’s two senators, written the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association on behalf of the center, said Mark Forest, the congressman’s chief of staff. Delahunt has also included an earmark in the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Bill that he hopes will be voted on by the full House this month, appropriating $500,000.

“It would be earmarked specifically for the right whale program and disentanglement,” he said, “and specifically designated for the center because they’re the only ones who do this work in our region.”

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