August 23, 2006

Entangled Whale Tracked by Satellite

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - Rescuers have partially disentangled a curtain of fishing net from the tail of a humpback whale in a waterway southeast of Juneau, officials said Tuesday.

The gillnet is still wrapped around the whale's tail, however, the cetacean is not in imminent danger, said Sheela McLean, spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The crew followed the whale around Stephens Passage, southeast of Juneau, using a satellite tracking device and managed to remove a large percentage of gear after the animal surfaced for air, McLean said.

The satellite telemetry tag was attached Sunday and allowed the Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network team, led by mammal disentanglement expert Ed Lyman, to return to Juneau for rest. The team will relaunch later this week to find the 35-foot whale and attempt to free it completely from the 100 feet of fishing net.

Scientists and other volunteers honed in on the whale Monday after receiving calls that the fishing net was clinging to the animal's tail, just forward of the flukes.

They attached buoys to the gillnet to discourage the whale from diving.

"The object is to tire it out enough that it will be docile enough to remove the gear," said Barry Bracken, a retired biologist and sightseeing and charter operator in Petersburg.

The weight of net was keeping the whale from surfacing completely and preventing it from diving to normal feeding depths, Bracken said.

It is not uncommon for whales to occasionally get entangled in fishing gear in Alaska, said Kaja Brix, director of protective resources for Alaska for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

About 10 entangled whales per year have been reported in recent years, she said.

Brix said she is not sure exactly how many whales have been reported entangled this year, but said it's about half the annual average.

She said it is hard to determine the success rate of disentanglement because scientists have not used the tags until this most recent case.

"Sometimes the whale frees itself, sometimes we free it, and sometimes the whale swims off with the gear and we don't know what the fate of it is," Brix said.

Brix said the public should not attempt to disentangle whales or other marine mammals caught in fishing gear.

"This is a dangerous undertaking," she said. "The whale's life is usually not in imminent danger so it's best for people who see this kind of thing to report it and we will follow up on it."


Information from: Juneau Empire,