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Unalaska responders trained to save whales

June 16th, 2017 | Jim Paulin Print this article   Email this article  

Saving whales entangled in fishing gear isn't for everybody, even people who really, really want to help. They could get hurt, and also run afoul of the law, said Ed Lyman, a federal whale specialist who taught a course in Unalaska this week aimed at training and certifying responders who could cut the 40-ton marine mammals free.

While there have been about three whale entanglements around Unalaska in the last three years, the potential exists for more, from increasing activity in the four-year-old state waters Dutch Harbor pot cod fishery, said Marine Agent Melissa Good, of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Bristol Bay Campus.

There's normally sufficient overlap between the end of the pot cod fishery, and the start of the whale season in local waters, Good said, and if there was an entanglement, it wouldn't be the fishermen's fault.

Whale watching was in full swing in recent weeks, with vehicles parked along the S Curves on Airport Beach Road, watching the humpback whales spouting and breaching, on their northbound migration from Hawaii to Alaska.

Still, there's a lot more pots in the nearshore waters. In 2014, the first year of the fishery, 17 small boats took part, a figure that increased to 24 this year, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Each boat can work up to 60 pots.

Whales see fishing gear as toys. Lyman said whales are "very playful animals, and they tend to get themselves into trouble." Many whales free themselves of entanglements, he noted.

Good said, at the classroom session, she's presently the only certified entangled whale responder in the Aleutians. About 15 people attended the public session, and about another eight were expected to participate in water training in UAF's skiff on Tuesday. Good said she invited Lyman to train local responders in "efficient and effective responses" to dealing with entangled whales.

Lyman traveled from the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, where he works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as the entangled whale coordinator. He displayed whale liberation tools, including a grappling hook with attached knife blades.

Whales can live between six months and a year while entangled in fishing gear, although it can lead to

infections, starvation and eventual death, he said. He apologized for "gruesome" photos, showing whales with deep, oozing cuts from tightly-wrapped fishing lines. And when whales are weighted down with crab pots, they can't jump out of the water and remove scabby sea lice, which then greatly multiply and grotesquely cover their flesh.

Entangled gear travels both ways between Alaska and Hawaii, but more often it shows up with the animals when they arrive at their southern calving grounds. Lyman credited "robust" Alaska crab gear with being made to handle the long distance trips.

"It's just that the Alaska gear holds up, and it's there to be identified," he said.

The nastiest fishing gear to try to get off a whale is a tangled gillnet, twisted up and hard to cut, he said.


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