On a sunny Tuesday night, about a dozen people are gathered on a dock. They’re practicing the skills needed to free a stranded whale.
Ed Lyman is up from Hawaii to lead the course. He has a lot of experience freeing entangled whales. He’s in town for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — working to build Unalaska’s response team.
“Here we are in Dutch Harbor, fishermen galore, capital of fishing, in many ways in the U.S.,” Lyman said. “So you have a lot of skill sets there already. But having to cut free a 40 ton whale is unique.”
Reports of entangled whales are increasing nationwide. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, last year there were 20 confirmed entanglements in Alaska compared to three in the year 2000.
Until now, there was only one person in Unalaska trained to approach distressed marine mammals. That means if more help was needed, a team from the Marine Mammal Stranding Network would have to fly in.
Emily Gibson is part of the new crop of responders. She’s an environmental compliance manager at a local seafood processor, but says she’s taking part in the class as a fisherman and resident.
“We spend a lot of time on the water in the summer and interact and see whales, so we’re kind of the first line of defense against these entanglements and trying to mount a response to help whales that might be in trouble out here,” Emily Gibson said.
Because of the potential risks to humans and marine mammals, NOAA Fisheries approves responses on a case-by-case basis.
Having responders from different areas of expertise, Lyman says, is key to success.
“Boy, throw a whale biologist and a fisherman together — it’s the perfect team to cut a whale free,” Lyman said. “The whale biologist knows the whale behavior. The fisherman knows gear, knows the ocean, knows boats, and things of that nature. You’re putting two skill sets together to make a great team. It works. Believe me.”
By sharing his knowledge, Lyman hopes to protect whales while keeping humans safe.
If you see a marine mammal in distress, you should report the sighting to the Marine Mammal Stranding Network at 1-877-925-7773.