Amazing rescue of struggling seal caught in buoy lines off Cape Cod
Recently during one of our weekly morning staff meetings, I received a call on our stranding hotline from the Massachusetts Environmental Police. One of their officers was out patrolling Pleasant Bay in Chatham, and had spotted a seal that was entangled in a buoy line of a pot gear fishery.
After I finished getting all the necessary information and hung up the phone, I turned and looked at the rest of the staff and pronounced, “Well, the day just got a bit more interesting...”
One of the causes of mortality to marine mammals is entanglement in various types of fishing gear, nets, and marine debris.
In almost all cases these entanglements are considered life threatening. If animals are not freed from the entanglement, the gear can inhibit an animal’s ability to swim, feed, and evade predators.
What makes this particular entanglement case unique, and slightly more difficult, was that the seal was observed not hauled out on a beach, but free-swimming in the water dragging the pot gear around by the buoy line wrapped around its neck.
The seal had become so tightly entangled in the line that it struggled to get to the surface to breath. So not only was our mission to disentangle the seal but we had to catch the animal first, not an easy task to accomplish in the middle of a bay.
Once myself, my co-worker Kathryn, and two of our IFAW volunteers arrived on scene in our vessel we were able to quickly locate the entangled seal thanks to the MEP officer remaining on scene.
We quickly assessed the behavior of the seal, determined its surface and dive time intervals, the severity of the entanglement and how much gear the animal was dragging.
Once we had a capture plan, we utilized our specialized disengagement tools to snag part of the trailing pot gear as the seal swam by our vessel. Once we had control of the gear, we could then focus on restraining the seal enough to hoist it onboard.
Luckily for us, the seal was not a full grown adult so we were able to successfully restrain the seal in the vessel while we cut the buoy line away from the neck of the animal.
We felt as though the entanglement had occurred fairly recently because the line had not started to abrade the skin around the neck. Often times, with animals that have been entangled for months or longer, the line can start to lacerate through the skin and blubber layers which makes disentanglement much more difficult to perform.
Once all the gear was successfully removed, and the seal was given a thorough health assessment, we were able to release the seal back into the water gear- free.
This was a difficult response that was made a success through great team effort, coordination, and communication.
And a little luck along the way never hurts either…