NOAA Fisheries, the leader in the Alaska Large Whale Entanglement Response Program, recently held workshops in four communities on how to best respond to entangled whales.
The training sessions in Metlakatla, Auke Bay and Gustavus in Southeast Alaska, and Cordova, on Prince William Sound, taught safety skills needed to approach whales in distress, especially entangled whales.
Participating NOAA employees and partner agencies included a team of advanced, authorized responders and trainers who use specialized equipment to safely and legally respond to entangled whales. The program emphasizes the importance of assessment and documentation from a safe, legal distance from the on-water communities.
Christine Gabriele of the Humpback Whale Monitoring Program at Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve noted the inherent risk in whale disentanglement, due to the size and strength of whales.
“One of the most useful aspects of the training is the hands-on practice on using a grappling hook and other specialized tools,” Gabriele said. “You don’t want your first try at throwing a grapple to be when there’s an entangled whale swimming next to the boat. Practice helps us to be safer and more effective.”
The workshops were led by Ed Lyman, regional large whale entanglement response coordinator at the NOAA Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. He described entangled whales as “essentially a very big needle in an even larger haystack—oceans.”
“Because many large whales are able to drag the gear and swim off with it, we need to locate them, make an assessment on the entanglement, determine if an authorized response needs to be made by a trained and experienced team and then monitor the entangled animal all from a safe and legal distance,” he said.
“Whales can become entangled when they swim though fishing gear and marine debris floating in the water column, such as rope, netting and lines,” he continued. “If they get entangled in heavy fishing gear, anchors or a mooring, they could end up pulling gear off the ocean floor and dragging it a long distance.”
Entanglements impact the whale’s ability to move, feed and survive. Dragging heavy gear requires them to use extra energy, which can result in reduced reproduction, potentially leading to reduced population size.
While in many cases, whales are able to self-release from gear or debris, they carry the scars from injuries sustained during the entanglement. One study conducted in Southeast Alaska found that 78% of humpback whales surveyed showed evidence of such scarring, indicating that the whales had survived entanglements.