UAF scientists release humpback whale entangled in fishing gear

Whales may be chasing prey closer to shore

28 July 2005

Contact: Kate Wynne, Marine Mammal Specialist, Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program, 907-486-1517,
NR: SG-2005/NR223

Kodiak, Alaska—A team of UAF researchers successfully released a young humpback whale that had become entangled in commercial crab fishing lines and buoys in waters near Kodiak Tuesday night (July 26, 2005).

releasing the whale

The whale was one or two years old and about 20 feet long, according to Kate Wynne, a Kodiak-based Marine Mammal Specialist with the UAF Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program. Wynne is among the few individuals in the state authorized by the National Marine Fisheries Service to disentangle marine mammals. Wynne led seven other UAF researchers in the successful rescue effort.

"The whale was thin and near complete exhaustion when we arrived at the scene," said Wynne. "The young whale was nearly immobilized by lines, the crab pot, and buoys and it is likely the whale would not have survived through the night without intervention."

The team used three small boats and specialized disentanglement poles and knives to cut at least four lines that had ensnared the whale's pectoral fins and flukes.

"It appeared that one line may have gone from his flukes forward along his right side, over his lower lip and back to his left pectoral fin, and then to his fluke, essentially hog-tying him," said Wynne. "To surface for air, it had to do a sort of stomach-crunch, flexing enough so the buoys attached at his flukes submerged when his head was up. It had to have been quite a workout for the little guy."

After five hours the team was able to cut all the lines. Wynne said the whale finally swam away when the team cut free the two commercial fishing buoys it had been dragging.

whale release team The UAF whale release team included (L to R): Jordy Thomson, Kate Wynne, Loren Buck, Cathy Foy, Bree Witteveen, Bob Foy, Alf Haukenes, Casey Clark.

"We are just really happy that everything worked out, that we were able to safely release the whale without the whale or any of us getting hurt," said Wynne.

Mariners are reminded to report entangled marine mammals to the National Marine Fisheries Service enforcement or the United States Coast Guard on marine radio VHF Channel 16. Unauthorized attempts to free marine mammals are a violation of federal law.

Wynne, together with other scientists and graduate students at the UAF Fishery Industrial Technology Center in Kodiak, monitors humpback whales and other marine mammals as part of a long-term study of the region's ecosystem. She said the number of whale entanglements in fishing gear is up slightly this year. She said the whales might be pursuing prey species like capelin and sandlance nearer to shore, bringing the whales closer to a variety of fishing gear along the coast.

So far this year, 10 humpback whales have been reported entangled along Alaska's coast, according to Aleria Jensen, marine mammal stranding coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Juneau, Alaska. On average, about eight whales become stranded each year.

Humpback whales are an endangered species frequently seen in waters around Kodiak Island each summer. No one knows for sure how many humpback whales feed in Alaska waters, but scientists estimate at least several thousand of the animals return from calving grounds off Mexico and Hawaii to feed on abundant stocks of zooplankton and schooling fish in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea. Adult humpbacks grow to nearly 50 feet and can tip the scales at 25 tons, according to the Guide to Marine Mammals of Alaska identification book, authored by Wynne.