sealife tangled in plastic

Ask Lauren: What Do I Do If I See an Animal Tangled in Plastic?

By: Ask Lauren, Environmental, Safety, The Oceans

It is always exciting to encounter marine animals in their natural habitat- the vast diversity of creatures in the ocean both pull at our heartstrings and inspires a sense of wonder. We’ve all seen heartwarming videos of sailors, divers, and surfers having amicable run-ins with favorite marine animals like dolphins, turtles, seals… even sharks!

The new trend in viral animal videos is much different: more and more we are encountering marine life entangled in fishing nets or plastic debris, choking on plastic pieces, or stranded onshore from a variety of illnesses and environmental causes. These videos often end with a person coming to the rescue and sending the animal on its way… but was this just a matter of luck? Was the rescuer in any danger? Was the animal placed in even greater danger by this interaction?

These are important questions to ask yourself if you ever come in contact with an animal in distress. As more and more plastic enters our oceans every day, it is imperative that sailors are prepared to handle these encounters properly.

How to Prepare

From your ASA sailing education, you know that every sail, no matter how short, should involve some planning for safety and situational awareness. This should include the name and phone number of the closest marine animal distress responder. There are organizations in coastal regions all over the country who have trained staff and volunteers ready to respond to calls of injured, entangled, or distressed animals. Keep this information with your ship’s important documents. To find the organization serving your region, check out NOAA’s interactive map here.

How to Report

NOAA marine mammal report

Identify and report marine mammal distress with the NOAA app.

The faster you report a distressed animal sighting, the better chance you have at a successful rescue. Do not wait until you get home to report. NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) has a free Dolphin and Whale 911 mobile app that will automatically connect you to the closest responder and display your GPS coordinates. The app will even guide you through properly identifying the animal.

When you report, you will want to be prepared to answer questions about your location, the location of the animal(s), species/type of animal, the environmental conditions in the area, and what condition the animal is in: Is it injured? Is it exhibiting any strange behavior? If it is entangled, what material is it caught in?

Try to remain calm and articulate the situation as clearly and quickly as you can. If all else fails, you can reach the Coast Guard at VHF 16.

How to React

If you’re like me, you will have an immediate instinct to approach the entangled animal and do whatever it takes to set it free. This can be extremely dangerous for a variety of reasons. In addition to the obvious dangers like claws, spines, diseases, and teeth, wild animals behave unpredictably in times of stress and by approaching them you could put both yourself and the animal in danger. It is also illegal in many places to handle wildlife without a permit.

The best approach in most situations is to give the animal ample space while keeping it in sight and reporting to a trained authority. Take photos and videos that can be shared with a responder.

For more information, check out the National Marine Life Center’s guide for properly handling various marine animal distress situations.

How to Prevent

A web search for images and videos of marine animal entanglements will break even the saltiest sailor’s heart. While we can’t all be trained to rescue these animals, we can all be a part of preventing the flow of plastic to our world’s oceans. Learn more about how you can join ASA’s quest to protect our oceans!