More than 1,000 whales around the world, including more than 20 in Alaskan waters, have been disentangled in the past two decades by U.S. and other marine experts who have developed a variety of tools like these for their often dangerous work.
Story last updated at 6/10/2009 - 1:35 pm
JUNEAU - With the Pacific population of humpback whales growing at seven percent annually, mariners can expect more encounters with the giant mammals. To reduce injury to the federally protected creatures and gear loss to harvesters, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is recruiting volunteers to join a response network to assist the few federal personnel who are authorized to disentangle whales.
Reports of whale entanglements in Southeast and the Gulf of Alaska jumped from fewer than six in 2004 to more than 20 in 2005. Edward Lyman, disentanglement coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, began visiting Alaska in 2005 on a campaign to promote entangled whale reporting. During that same year a long-closed commercial salmon fishery on the Taku River reopened. Lyman speculated that the reopening might have contributed to the jump in encounters.
Southeast Alaska incident reports have since dropped to about eight per year in 2007 and 2008, a rate that Lyman said seems to be the slowly increasing average of confirmed reports for the Panhandle. Data from international and Alaska whale counters confirms harvesters' reports that the humpback population is growing. According to Lyman, whale census efforts involving 11 countries estimate the Central and North Pacific whale population at 10,000 to 12,000 individuals.
"We're going to see more numbers," Lyman said at a disentanglement workshop in Juneau on May 30. "That's part of the reason we're getting more reports."
Based in Kihei, Hawaii, Lyman follows the great whale migration to Alaska each summer, offering disentanglement workshops when he's not responding to actual incidents. Efforts to free snarled whales can last for days and even weeks. Seals and small mammals such as porpoise and juvenile whales can quickly drown if they become entangled in fishing gear or floating debris. Adult whales can drag line or net for years. They can take months to starve because entanglements around their heads can make it difficult to consume available food. Dragged debris can also make them too slow to catch their prey.
"I've seen whales last a year, in some cases, before they actually get weak enough to die," Lyman said.
Whales with electronic monitors attached to their fouling gear have been tracked from the Pribilof Island to Hawaii. One whale was recorded to have traveled 2,400 miles from Hawaii to Wrangell, Alaska, the longest straight-line distance on record.
Whales often free themselves, so responders have learned to give them plenty of time to try. This can avoid injury to human rescuers, who use traditional New England whaling tactics, and preserves Lyman's limited response capability. Lyman has no dedicated fleet of response boats so he sometimes hitches rides on U.S. Coast Guard vessels, NMFS Enforcement Division vessels or other boats to locate and assist a whale.
Commercial harvesters and whale watching tour operators are among Lyman's most valuable incident reporters, partly because of the amount of time they spend on the water and the accuracy of their data. Confirmed sightings make up just over 51 percent of all Alaska entanglement reports and just over 48 percent in Hawaiian waters.
Whale fans and Pacific coastal residents have enthusiastically embraced the reporting effort but their help isn't always reliable.
"In Hawaii it's big," Lyman said. "People are out there in their condos sipping their drinks and reporting. They misreport. We get a lot of those."
Some reports have described strange-colored whales later found to match nearby kayaks.
Commercial harvesters occasionally benefit from the program by recovering expensive fishing gear and by learning whether completed or prospective modifications can reduce the chance of future foulings.
Lyman said commercial fishing gear is "the most abundant gear out there," but he noted that whales have been found entangled in sport and sailing gear, navigational buoys and, in Hawaiian waters, moorings for hydrophones placed in the sea as part of scientific research programs.
"You cannot point the finger at any one industry," Lyman said.
Because marine mammals are protected by federal law, approaching them without a federal permit, even to save their lives, is technically a crime.
"When you go out to help a whale, you're essentially harassing whales," Lyman said at the workshop.
While Lyman runs the disentanglement show in Alaska, even he must get specific permission from the program's headquarters in Washington, D.C. for each disentanglement attempt.
Actual rescues are largely matters of learned method and common sense. Level One responders participating in the program provide location, course, heading data and a description of the entangling gear. They may be asked to stand by to give Lyman or other authorized responders time to arrive and assess the situation, or to attach a transponder to the fouling gear so the whale can be tracked.
Since coordinated efforts to develop rescue techniques began in the 1980s among Newfoundland commercial fishermen, over 1,000 whales have been disentangled around the world, including more than 20 in Alaskan waters.
Lyman said one key to a successful rescue is making sure the whale knows what's going on. This is accomplished by approaching a passive whale from the same direction at the same nearly dead-slow speed.
"You're actually trying the whole time to let the whale know what you're doing," Lyman said. "After so many approaches the whale learns your method and can be real evasive so you have to wait other days to try to rescue."
He warned against shifting gears or other sudden moves that could spook an already traumatized whale and said that whales can quickly recognize repeated patterns.
The presence of other whales or potential predators like tiger sharks, which have been seen near rescue efforts in Hawaiian waters, also change situation dynamics.
When rescuers try to cut the gear from a moving whale, they first attach up to three buoys, one at a time, to slow the creature and keep it at the surface. Lyman has developed a set of cutting tools, largely by customizing common knives and sickles, to slice through monofilament netting or to snag the fouling material.
Common misconceptions Lyman has encountered among rescue volunteers and others include the belief that a whale knows you are there to help them or that they are "gentle giants."
"Do not believe that for a second," Lyman warned. "They can be spooked. You don't want to be on the receiving end when they do spook."