Tragic Image Shows Pregnant Dead Whale and Fetus Tangled in Fishing Gear on Beach

A pregnant Minke whale has been found washed ashore on the Orkney Islands, in Scotland.

The cetacean died after getting caught in a fishing net⁠. Scientists say the netting had become jammed in the whale's baleen, the filter-feeding system used to extract prey from the water. This would have impaired the animal's ability to swim or eat properly, experts at the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme (SMASS) said on the organization's Facebook page.

The Minke whale was pregnant with a female calf when she was discovered already dead on the island of Sanday, one of the larger inhabited outer islands of Orkney.

"In this case, entanglement cost the lives of two animals—the mother and her unborn, female calf," the Facebook post reads.

"This further demonstrates why such interactions can be both tragic at an individual level and potentially a risk to the population."

Based on the flank bruising and lungs, experts believe the animal was alive when she became stranded and subsequently drowned in the surf line.

Minke Whale Stranded
The minke whale was found stranded on the island of Sanday. SMASS Orkney 2019

Derelict fishing gear that has been discarded, lost, damaged or otherwise abandoned in a marine environment (such as the netting that entangled the Minke whale) is frequently referred to as "ghost gear."

As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) explains, it may continue to fish and trap animals long after it has been relegated to ocean waste—a phenomenon known as "ghostfishing." In addition to entrapping sea-life, it can smother ocean habitats and hinder navigation.

According to the World Animal Protection, 640,000 tonnes of ghost gear is left in the oceans each year. It can take 600 years to break down and kills or injures more than 100,000 whales, dolphins, seals and turtles every year.

Minke Whale Fetus
The minke whale was carrying a mid-term fetus. SMASS Orkney 2019

In this instance, the good news is that it does not look like the minke whale suffered for a long period of time, Andrew Brownlow, who has led the SMASS strandings team since 2009, told Newsweek.

In contrast, other animals have become "chronically entangled" in ghost gear, he said—a situation that can last days, weeks and even years. Eventually, an animal might contract an infection from a wound caused by the entanglement or become so weak from dragging equipment around that they die from exhaustion.

As fishing increases year on year, it is reasonable to say the risk of entanglement is increasing too, he added.

Brownlow, a partner with the Scottish Entanglement Alliance (SEA), stresses that it is a problem that can only be addressed if everyone comes together, and requires the collaboration of fishing industry representatives, researchers and conservation charities.

Baleen whale stranded
The netting got caught in the whale's baleen, causing navigation and feeding problems. SMASS Orkney 2019

The Facebook post ends on a more positive note. Last week, another whale was found stranded in Orkney after becoming entangled in the waters around the island of Westray. However, in this instance, the team was able to disentangle and save the humpback.