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Whale freed from suspected fishing gear, experts spotlight Unalaska’s community response

On April 1, a young humpback whale was found tied up in a probable fishing line and anchored down in a busy area in Iliuliuk Bay. Four days later, a group of whale entanglement experts carefully cut the line wrapped around the humpback's mouth and tail.

Ed Lyman, an entanglement response coordinator for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, thinks the whale was a two-year-old male who got hogtied while feeding in the area.

"[He] gets the line wrapped up in the mouth, panics, and twirls up," Lyman said. "Suddenly, he's got it on his tail as well — between the mouth and tail."

It is unclear what type of fishing gear weighed down the 30-foot whale, but it gave enough slack for him to come up for air.

Lyman said the rescue process takes time. He has participated in 120 whale entanglements and said even though entanglements can be life-threatening for whales, they are not an immediate threat. He said whales are large animals, and disentangling can be deadly if not done carefully.

It’s unclear what type of fishing gear was weighing down the 30-foot whale, but it did give enough slack for the humpback to come up for air.
Photo Courtesy of NOAA Fisheries, MMHSRP Permit #24359
It’s unclear what type of fishing gear was weighing down the 30-foot whale, but it did give enough slack for the humpback to come up for air.

"So they have time on their side; we have time on our side," Lyman said. "I've never been involved in entanglement where the animals died in a day or two."

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) in Dutch Harbor received a call about the entangled whale from locals who noticed that the humpback was breathing and unable to move freely.

It was then reported to marine traffic in the area. The U.S. Coast Guard in Alaska and the nonprofit organization Marine Exchange of Alaska posted a digital map displaying the entangled humpback, warning vessels entering the harbor to avoid the hazard.

Asia Beder, the state's assistant area management biologist for Dutch Harbor, appreciated the patience shown by the community of Unalaska. She says it played a vital role in the successful rescue of the humpback whale.

"I know this was a very emotional story and event for the community," she said. "By giving us reports, keeping the distance, and allowing us time, I think that created this into a success story."

Local ADFG staff received expert advice on capturing footage of the whale entanglement using a camera attached to a pole. They said it helped whale experts determine specialized tools required for the rescue operation.

Sadie Wright, a large whale entanglement response coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is based in Juneau and has participated in 15 whale entanglements. She said whales can sometimes free themselves from entanglements. However, based on the photos and reports collected from the Unalaska community, it was clear that this whale needed help.

"It was a life-threatening entanglement, and we determined it needed an advanced response," she said. "So reporting is essential."

The actual rescue took two days. On a boat, local Fish and Game biologists and visiting whale experts gathered data from specialized tools. They floated around the whale and sometimes over it. The team used a large pole with a hook knife at the end of it, and a camera attached, so they could see in real time where the knife was cutting the rope underwater.

"We knew which line we wanted to cut first, and then second, to try to encourage the rope to then come off by itself to slide off the animal," Wright said, "which eventually happened."

The team followed the whale out of the Bay and into the Bering Sea to confirm that the whale was completely detangled.
Photo Courtesy of NOAA Fisheries, MMHSRP Permit #24359
Experts say the whale looked good and that it was swimming normally. Once it got further out, it picked up some speed and took a nice deep dive.

Lyman said the whale cooperated during the rescue and even seemed curious at times.

"It would almost rise up a little bit more and lean over a little bit," he said. "Like, what are you guys doing? Why are you here? You know, that kind of thing."

After the whale was cut loose, the team followed it out of the bay and into the Bering Sea. They said the whale looked good and was swimming normally. Once it got further out, it picked up some speed and took a nice deep dive. Lyman said there's a good chance the humpback will be fine.

"You know, I would almost bet on it, and I'm not a betting man," he said.

The whale rescue team recommends not putting unnecessary objects in the water and reducing the use of floating lines to prevent whale entanglements.

The young humpback whale is currently identifiable with a string-like mark on its dorsal fin, which the team thinks is from when the whale was trying to break free from the gear.

Sofia was born and raised in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. She’s reported around the U.S. for local public radio stations, NPR and National Native News. Sofia has a Master of Arts in Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism from the University of Montana, a graduate certificate in Documentary Studies from the Salt Institute and a Bachelor of Arts in Studio Arts from the University of Colorado Boulder. In between her studies, Sofia was a ski bum in Telluride, Colorado for a few years.
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