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Sad story behind photos of dolphin calf found entangled off WA coast

Earlier this month a 16-month-old dolphin named Luca died off the West Australian coast in Mandurah after becoming entangled in fishing line for the third time this year.

Despite a successful capture, Luca died under sedation while undergoing a desperate operation.

“Luca was a tragedy caused by human pollution in his natural environment,” local organisation Estuary Guardians Mandurah told Yahoo News Australia.

Luca was entangled in fishing line three times this year, he died after the third capture and rescue. Source: Estuary Guardians Mandurah Facebook.
Luca was entangled in fishing line three times this year, he died after the third capture and rescue. Source: Estuary Guardians Mandurah Facebook.

Volunteer groups and marine experts monitor the dolphin populations in the area.

The animal was first reported entangled by fishing line in February this year. The fishing line wrapped around his body - cutting into his dorsal fin and around his right pectoral fin.

The first rescue by the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) was successful, however, Luca was once again caught in fishing line in June.

This time it was harder for DBCA to approach and free Luca. On August 8, DBCA wildlife officers and Dr Alisa Wallace, acting head veterinarian from Perth Zoo, were able to capture Luca and remove the fishing line while also giving him a long-acting antibiotic injection.

But just a few days later, Luca was reported entangled once again.

Luca, pictured here when he was younger, suffered after the entanglements, which caused severe injuries. Source: Estuary Guardians Mandurah.
Luca, pictured here when he was younger, suffered after the entanglements, which caused severe injuries. Source: Estuary Guardians Mandurah.

Veterinary pathologist and dolphin researcher Dr Nahiid Stephens from Murdoch university was one of the vets who assisted with the third rescue and surgery. She told Yahoo News Australia that Luca’s entanglements raised some serious concerns.

“First of all, how on earth are our waterways so littered, that he can become entangled in a mass of line so rapidly.

“And secondly, how could we prevent him from becoming repeatedly entangled? He had developed very deep cuts on both the front and back of his dorsal fin where the entangled line had cut into his flesh and these wounds predisposed him to snagging more line.”

Not only did the wounds pose a risk of severe infection, but the entanglements would also have been draining for the young dolphin and caused continual pain and stress, she said.

After the third entanglement, DBCA officers and volunteers noted Luca’s mother, Laika, was pushing him around more than usual, leaving him for longer periods of time.

Dr Stephens said it is unusual for a mother to leave her calf for protracted periods unless they have no choice, as a lone dolphin is an easy target for sharks.

Dolphin calves are usually reliant on their mother until they are four or five years’ old. When Luca didn’t follow his mum to get food, it was understood he was unable to swim properly.

“We took that as a bad sign,” Dr Stephens said. “That he wasn’t coping well and he was deteriorating.”

Dr Stephens and Dr Wallace put their heads together to figure out how best to help the calf.

Dolphin’s fin amputated during on-water operation

DBCA led the third rescue, while Dr Wallace headed up the veterinary team, which also included an animal surgeon from the The Animal Hospital at Murdoch University, Dr Carla Applegrein.

The cut on Luca's dorsal fin made it easier for fishing line to catch. Source: Estuary Guardians Mandurah.
The cut on Luca's dorsal fin made it easier for fishing line to catch. Source: Estuary Guardians Mandurah.

“Much effort was put into trying to help Luca,” Dr Wallace said in a statement. “A specialist medical team was assembled, including wildlife veterinarians and surgeons.

“We also collaborated with international experts who annually treat multiple wild dolphins to plan for every scenario.”

The team believed the best chance Luca had was to amputate the top half of his dorsal fin - by this time only the middle third of the fin remained attached halfway down.

“Our plan was to capture and sedate him, disentangle him, assess his health as best we could on the back of the boat, give him pain relief, antibiotics and local anaesthesia, and amputate his dorsal fin.”

The veterinary team working on Luca, from left to right: Dr Nahiid Stephens, surgeon Dr Carla Appelgrein, Dr Alisa Wallace, and Perth Zoo senior veterinary nurse Kate Simon-Menasse. Source: DBCA via Dr Nahiid Stephens.
The veterinary team working on Luca, from left to right: Dr Nahiid Stephens, surgeon Dr Carla Appelgrein, Dr Alisa Wallace, and Perth Zoo senior veterinary nurse Kate Simon-Menasse. Source: DBCA via Dr Nahiid Stephens.

After capturing and examining Luca, the team became increasingly concerned about his pectoral fin, which was hurt in the first two entanglements.

“There were only two choices in front of us,” Dr Stephens said. “Either he had to be euthanised from a welfare perspective - because we cannot stand by and watch him suffer and slowly die, which is what would have happened if we left him.

“Or, we could attempt to give him the one and only chance we could possibly give him, which was to amputate the dorsal fin and see if he could then rally back with his mother with the support of another long acting antibiotic injection.”

Luca died under sedation, those involved take comfort knowing he is no longer suffering. Source: Estuary Guardians Mandurah.
Luca died under sedation, those involved take comfort knowing he is no longer suffering. Source: Estuary Guardians Mandurah.

‘One last chance’ comes too late

Unfortunately, Luca died while sedated. X-rays and post-mortem examination carried out after his death showed the pectoral fin was significantly more damaged than first suspected.

The deep cut caused a joint infection which had spread to the adjacent bones. Dr Stepheens said the severe infection had compromised Luca’s health, so he was unable to withstand the sedation and surgery.

“It was a very hard day for all of us,” Dr Stephens said.

“There are so many people who have followed his story for months and played an integral part in his disentanglements, we’re all very devastated.”

“The community was an enormous help in tracking Luca and are deeply saddened at the loss,” Estuary Guardian’s told Yahoo News Australia.

“We urge everyone to remember Luca and fish responsibly by correctly disposing of any loose line. As well, to join in community cleanups and generally pick up any rubbish they see on their travels. Together we can all try and prevent this happening again”.

Fisherman have been urged to be careful about discarding loose fishing line.

“It’s wrong to point fingers,” Dr Stephens said. “I would say the vast majority of people who fish do so responsibly and would also be devastated to know this has happened.

“We have to turn this narrative around and (stop) pointing the finger at different groups of people. We now need to get out there and make people aware that the only way to make a difference is through positive action.

“We need to be proactive, rather than reactive. If you are saddened by Luca’s story, then let something positive come of it and assist with community cleanups.”

The West Australian government is making strides to tackle fishing line ending up in waterways.

The Reel It In bins around WA rely on volunteers to empty them. Source: River Guardians.
The Reel It In bins around WA rely on volunteers to empty them. Source: River Guardians.

The Reel It In initiative has provided bins to safely dispose of fishing line on West Australian beaches. Since the launch, more than 14,000 hooks and sinkers, 10,000 bait bags and over 35,000 pieces of general rubbish have been correctly disposed of.

The bins are already at some of Swan Canning Riverpark and Perth metropolitan beaches. On August 26, DBCA announced new bins would be installed in Shoalwater Islands Marine Park, Port Kennedy and Bent Street boat ramps, and at Mersey Point Jetty.

"This project is a seemingly simple but very effective way to improve the health of our oceans and wildlife,” Fisheries Minister Dave Kelly said in a media statement.

"It's great to see that the fishing community is embracing this initiative and taking responsibility for discarded fishing line, hooks, sinkers and other fishing waste.”

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