PUBLISHED: 4:00 PM on Wednesday, January 16, 2008
Welding class produces knives to save whales from entanglement
University of Alaska Southeast students probably never thought they could help save whales while learning the fundamentals of welding, but it's been made possible. Mike Bell, professor of Diesel Technology at UAS, along with students and constituents, have been working on a special type of knife that cuts entangled whales free in his Basic Welding class.

The creation all started when Ed Lyman, NOAA Marine Mammal Response Manager of the Hawaiian Islands National Marine Sanctuary in Kihei, Hawaii, requested a specific welding job from the class while visiting in Juneau.

Over the last two summers, NOAA Fisheries Alaska Regional Office has teamed up with the Sanctuary bringing Lyman to Alaska to train whale biologists and other members of the marine mammal stranding network in national protocols and safety techniques involved in disentangling large whales.

"The goal of these trainings is to increase state-wide infrastructure to be able to respond to these events in a safe and authorized manner," said Aleria Jensen, marine mammal stranding coordinator, of NOAA fisheries.

Photo by Abby LaForce
  UAS welding student Cedar Stark shows off the finished knife, which assists in detangling whales caught in nets and fishing gear.
"Most reports come from Southeast Alaska, though we have also had incidents reported in Prince William Sound, Katchemak Bay, Bristol Bay, and around Kodiak and the Aleutians. It is often difficult to find dedicated vessels to stand-by until a trained response crew can arrive on-scene; in these cases, an entangled whale may not be re-sighted," she said.

Reports of large whales entangled in various types of gear include pot gear, gill net, long line and seine. "However, we are unable to identify the gear to fishery given the lack of information in many of the observations," Jensen said.

When we receive a report, the agency assesses the nature of the entanglement and the condition of the animal. We only intervene in situations that are life-threatening for the animal, she said.

In southeast Alaska, 72 percent of whales have fallen victim to dragging net or lines, according to online sources.

"Over the last several years, large whale entanglement reports received annually by NOAA Fisheries in Alaska have ranged from seven to twenty-one incidents," Jensen said.

Entanglement affects their ability to feed and deteriorates their health by hindering their ability to swim, resulting in drowning or vulnerability to boat strike.

Bell's class is experimenting with angle and cutting surface to create new knives that can be mounted on poles for trained disentanglers to cut

through gear that may be wrapped around a whale.

"What we have now are "V" shaped knives that fit on the end of poles, but they are fabricated from grade steel stainless steel," Lyman said.

His vision was to take two hardened steel knife blades, remove their handles, and weld them together to form the "V."

"To attach the knife to the poles that we use to reach out and cut the animal free, you'd weld them to a 5/8" bolt, of which fit our pole system," he said.

Jensen presented to Bell's class to educate on whale entanglement.

"Neither I nor my students had any concept of the number of whale entanglements and deaths in southeast Alaska, let alone the world," Bell said.

"Once a whale is reported as entangled, and has been located by a rescue team, a zodiac (inflatable boat) cruises up behind the whale, the person in the bow of the boat hooks a rope to the entangling ropes on the whale (by use of a grappling hook device on the end of the rope from the zodiac)," he said.

"As the whale cruises along, the bow person pulls the zodiac as close as possible so that other crew in the zodiac can attempt to cut the entangling ropes or nets free from the whale."

Only one knife has been created by student Cedar Stark, and was given to Jensen.

"They were all interested in them; I picked the one student who seemed the best at making them," said Bell.

The students worked as a team by figuring out the actual design, and everyone had input, he said.

Bell's plan is to try and produce at least one "whale saving knife from Alaska" in each course, four per year, with the next one going to Lyman in Hawaii.

We now have a better understanding of different ways that we might interact with other organizations, people, and other species in unique and adventuresome ways, he said. "NOAA Fisheries is thrilled to team with the UAS welding class on this project. It's a great opportunity for students to apply their skills to a real-world conservation issue, and their designs will augment the cache of equipment we use to disentangle large whales," Jensen said.

If you see an entangled whale, call NOAA Fisheries at 907-586-7235.