Marine Advisory agent helps release entangled humpback

9/26/2008

Contact: Gary Freitag, Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program, Ketchikan, Alaska, 907- 228-4551, freitag@sfos.uaf.edu, MAP profile

NR: SG-2008/NR280

Click images to view or download larger versions.

Photos courtesy Gary Freitag, Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program.

Approaching tangled whale

Approaching tangled whale.

Whale in net

Entangled whale.

Close-up of whale and net

Close-up view of net.

Cutting the net

Cutting the net.

Whale swimming away

Freed whale swimming off.

Metlakatla, Alaska—At approximately 10:30 a.m. on August 28, 2008, I was on Sea Grant business at the Department of Fish and Wildlife office of the Metlakatla Indian Community (MIC) when they received a radio call from a fisherman reporting he had a whale caught in his net.

The fisherman was participating in the Annette Island gillnet salmon fishery and was in waters off Cedar Point. The fisherman was close to rocks and the entangled whale was pulling him closer to shore. The fisherman said his gillnet drum and stern was straining from the force of the whale and his attempts to stay off the beach.

MIC fisheries management biologist Dustin Winter and technician Kevin McKeehan asked me to accompany them out to see what could be done. We launched their 20-foot aluminum work boat and spent 30 minutes traveling from Tamgass Bay to the entanglement site.

As we approached the entangled humpback whale, we could see that it was completely covered with gillnet and appeared to have its flippers pinned to its side. It was entangled at the end of the gillnet, which was still attached to the vessel. Its breathing was loud and breaths were about one minute apart.

Dustin Winter began cutting web, cork line, and lead line from the head toward the back. It took several approaches to the whale since the whale would sink to about six feet below the surface and then come back up. It moved slowly and seemed to be concentrating on breathing. After cutting several sections of lead line and cork line, the web began to tear and snap, making a noise that could be heard inside the boat.

After about 15 minutes, the whale was free of most of the net. Some lead line and web was still trailing and I suspected it was caught either on the right flipper or caught on the baleen. However, the whale was breathing normally and making quick headway, and did not appear to have difficulty. It was out of sight within a few minutes.

Two officers with the Metlakatla Police Department were on site to offer a margin of safety. Dustin Winter and Kevin McKeehan were very professional, and acted quickly and safely using common sense and excellent boat handling. The entire disentanglement took about 20 minutes.

Gary Freitag
Ketchikan Marine Mammal Stranding Network volunteer and Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program agent