NOAA holds entangled whale training sessions in Alaska

    Park Ranger Bethany Robichaud throws a grapple in a practice session at Glacier Bay National Park in June 2022. (Photo Credit: Glacier National Park and Preserve.)

    Juneau, Alaska (KINY) - NOAA recently hosted multiple trainings and workshops in Metlakatla, Auke Bay, Gustavus, and Cordova, on how best to respond to entangled whales in Alaska waters.

    These trainings brought together NOAA employees and our partner organizations to learn how to safely respond when encountering a large whale in distress.

    NOAA Fisheries leads the Alaska Large Whale Entanglement Response Program. It includes a team of advanced, authorized responders and trainers who are experts at using specialized equipment to safely and legally respond to entangled whales. The program also emphasizes the importance of first response from the on-water community in Alaska.

    "Whale disentanglement is inherently risky due to the size and strength of a whale, so it makes sense to be as prepared as you possibly can be,” said Christine Gabriele, Humpback Whale Monitoring Program, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. "One of the most useful aspects of the training is the hands-on practice on using a grappling hook and other specialized tools. 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."    

    Whales can become entangled when they swim though fishing gear and marine debris floating in the water column, such as rope, netting, and lines. 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 whales’ movements and ability to feed, dive, and survive—imperiling their health and safety. Dragging heavy gear requires them to use extra energy, which can result in reduced reproduction, potentially leading to reduced population size.

    They said that in many cases, whales are able to self-release from entangling gear or debris, but 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 entanglement scarring, indicating that the whales had survived entanglements.

    First responders are trained to make critical observations of the entangled whale; Photos and video of the whale (collected from a safe and legal distance of more than 100 yards), location and condition of the whale, direction the whale is headed, and Information about the material entangling the whale. First responders learn how to prioritize and record key information, such as the entangling materials, like type, color, and any markings or numbers, and where the entanglement is located on the whale's body. This will enable an assessment to determine if the entanglement is life threatening.

    NOAA said that if you see an entangled whale, do not approach it. Contact those with the expertise, training, and specialized equipment to respond. They advise that getting too close to a very large and likely distressed animal can be dangerous—even life threatening. Make predictable movements with your boat and avoid shifting gears or revving the engine. Entangled whales frequently avoid boats after repeated close encounters, making disentanglement efforts even more difficult, so it’s best to leave it to the experts.

    “The best way for the on-water community to help rescue whales is to report an entangled whale ASAP to the NOAA Fisheries hotline. Being a first responder from a safe distance and providing the initial information about the entanglement is the foundation of our response efforts,” stated NOAA’s Sadie Wright, Alaska Region Large Whale Entanglement Response Coordinator.

    NOAA’s 24/7 entanglement hotline can be reached at (877) 9-AKR-PRD, (1-877-925-7773), or the U. S. Coast Guard can also relay VHF reports on Channel 16.

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