In the fishing industry, whales are callously referred to as “bycatch”—a speciesist euphemism for “nontarget” animals who are caught or become tangled in fishing nets and other gear and are then discarded and left to die. An estimated 300,000 whales, dolphins, and porpoises die each year after being injured by fishing nets or lines.
A pregnant minke whale was found dead on a beach after a discarded trawl net (a net that’s dragged along the ocean floor, leaving it barren and lifeless) became stuck in her mouth, making it impossible for her to eat.
Nearly half the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from discarded fishing gear, which can be a death trap for whales and other marine species. Recent studies show that more than half of some species of large whales have been entangled at one point in their lives. In many cases, these victims may spend their last moments desperately struggling to free themselves from abandoned fishing nets until they die of exhaustion, starvation, suffocation, strangulation, dismemberment, or other injuries.
A mother sperm whale and her baby died after becoming entangled in a fishing net. According to reports, the mother whale died while trying to save her baby. Fishing net was found in her mouth, and netting completely enveloped the baby.
Entanglement in fishing gear continues to be the leading cause of death for the North Atlantic right whale—one of the most endangered large whale species, with fewer than 400 individuals remaining. Since 2017, 50 of these whales have been reported dead or seriously injured. Those individuals make up more than 10% of the total population.
These are just some of the instances that have been reported, but the vast majority of whales who become entangled in fishing gear are not even detected.