News Release: NOAA's Juneau response team still trying to free entangled humpback
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National Marine Fisheries Service, Alaska Regional Office

Fishing gear. Photo: MGC, AFSC

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September 3, 2013
Julie Speegle, 907-586-7032 w., 907-321-7032 c.

NOAA's Juneau response team still trying to free entangled humpback

humpback whale blowhole
Entangled humpback whale with gillnet near its blowhole. Photo: NOAA Fisheries, NMFS permit #932-1905.

Juneau, AK A humpback whale that first became entangled in fishing gear 12 days ago near Petersburg remains heavily wrapped in netting west of Juneau. Over the past several days, teams from Juneau have mounted multiple disentanglement response efforts, and have been able to remove some of the gear entangling the animal. Unfortunately, a significant amount of gear remains.

"This is a difficult entanglement. Much of the gear is underneath the whale, so it is challenging to access both visually and physically," said Aleria Jensen, NOAA's lead for the Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network. "We are now discussing the best course of action forward and gathering additional resources."

The team is waiting for calm seas later in the week to launch another response. It is hoped the extra time will also allow the whale to relax so that it might be more approachable.

Ed Lyman, NOAA's West Coast Entanglement Response Coordinator, has been advising the response and assisting the Alaska team with satellite telemetry updates. "The animals don't always understand that you are there to help them. This animal has been distressed and markedly evasive, so we are also giving it some space and time in hopes that it will calm down before we take additional action."

The animal is tagged with a tethered satellite tag package so that it can be tracked, and researchers are closely monitoring its movements. In addition to the green transmitter buoy, the most recent response effort left several red polyballs trailing. It is hoped that the buoyancy of the buoys will help keep the weighted gear afloat and yet not add much drag to the animal.

Experts say the whale is able to breathe and does not appear to be in any immediate danger, but there are concerns about longer-term impacts such as physical trauma from the tightly-wound lines and the potential of the whale being unable to feed.

The humpback first became entangled in a tended gillnet in Frederick Sound near Petersburg, Alaska on August 23. A NOAA Fisheries-trained and authorized team from the Petersburg Marine Mammal Center and Alaska Sea Grant initially responded and determined the entanglement was life-threatening. Although the Petersburg team could not free the animal, they did manage to attach the satellite buoy. The whale moved slowly north most of last week. NOAA Fisheries and the Alaska Whale Foundation responded to the whale over the weekend south of Juneau in Stephens Passage.

"We are asking mariners to stay clear of this whale if they spot it, both for the whale's safety as well as that of the vessel." Jensen said the animal is trailing quite a bit of gear that could pose a significant safety hazard." At this point there is no need to report the whale's location because of the satellite tag.

"We plan to try another response later this week," she added.

Jensen also pointed out that humpback whales are protected under federal law. NOAA Fisheries rescue efforts operate under specific federal authorization due to risks involved to the animal and rescuers alike.

If you come across any other entangled marine mammal please call the Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline at (877) 925-7773, or call the US Coast Guard on Channel 16. They will relay the report. It is typically the tour boat operators, fishers, and other mariners that find the animals and provide the initial assessment that is so valuable toward any response effort.

Find out more about NOAA Fisheries Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network on the Alaska Region's web site.

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