Unalaska uses teamwork and technology to save whales

Humpback whale sightings are becoming increasingly common in Unalaska, and so are whale entanglements. In late October 2018, Alaska Sea Grant’s Melissa Good helped coordinate efforts to successfully free a humpback that had been caught in commercial fishing gear.

Aerial view of raft with two people, and submerged whale entangled in fishing gear.

The response raft deploys a grappling hook near the submerged and entangled whale. Andy Dietrick/NOAA. MMHSRP Permit #18786-03.

Good is the regional lead responder for the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Network. She said she expects to see more entangled whales in the future as the Pacific cod fishery increases around Unalaska. But it’s not all bad news. The Unalaska-based Marine Advisory agent recently partnered with Aleutian Aerial and Oceans Unmanned to use drones to assist with whale disentanglement. The aerial footage provided by drones have allowed responders to quickly and accurately assess the situation when whales are caught in fishing gear or other debris.

In the blog post below, Good explains how the technology is being used and why more whales are visiting the waters of Unalaska Bay.

Woman in fishing gear smiling

Melissa Good, Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program agent for the Aleutian–Pribilof Islands.

(UNALASKA, Alaska) — In what has become a typical fall afternoon in Unalaska Bay, pods of humpback whales ply through the waters gulping up large amounts of food. On the edges of the bay, fishing gear—specifically, cod pots—lays in wait. The pots are designed to trap Pacific cod, but sometimes they end up ensnaring humpbacks in their lines.

That’s what happened last month when a team led by NOAA Fisheries spent 12 hours over the course of two days working to free a whale caught in hundreds of feet of line.

Whale entanglements with fishing gear and other marine debris are a growing concern worldwide. When whales are unable to free themselves, the fishing gear can cause lacerations and infections as the lines cut into the animals’ skin.

Entangled whales can also drown.

Working to save a large, injured, and distressed animal at sea can also be dangerous, and human safety is a major concern.

The difficulty of responding to whale entanglements in Unalaska hit home in the summer of 2015, when an unsuccessful attempt to bring a statewide entanglement response team to Unalaska led to the death of an entangled juvenile humpback. The whale died in Unalaska Bay when it was unable to free itself from crab pot lines that were tightly wrapped around its body. The whale was unable to feed and severe lacerations led to systemic infection.

After this incident, I met with other marine mammal response coordinators to discuss what could be done to prevent future deaths. I determined I needed more equipment to be readily available, and local trained responders. Over the past couple of years, I have worked on securing marine mammal stranding and entanglement response equipment.

With flying cutting knifes, razor-sharp cutting grapples, a dedicated response vessel, and other needed equipment secured, the next step was to assemble a local group trained to respond to whale entanglements.

In June of 2017, I hosted a large-whale disentanglement training for local fishermen, professional mariners, biologists and law enforcement officers. Ed Lyman, a large-whale entanglement response coordinator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Hawaii, flew to Unalaska/Dutch Harbor to conduct the training.

Through my experience with entangled whales, I knew that assessing how the fishing gear was wrapped around a 40-ton animal could be very difficult in the murky waters of Unalaska Bay. Prior assessments had been done with GoPro cameras attached to long poles, which required the boat and crew get very close to the animal to get clear photos. That’s a dangerous place to be, and often causes stress to the animal.

Partnering with Aleutian Aerial LLC and Oceans Unmanned Inc., with additional support from drone maker DJI, I launched a new initiative to provide aerial support for whale disentanglement efforts using small drones. This program, known as freeFLY, provides training, equipment and management oversight to our network of local responders.

I coordinate the program with Andy Dietrick, the owner/operator of Aleutian Aerial who provides the aerial support for assessments. My goal is twofold: safely free endangered whales and other marine animals from life-threatening entanglements, and decrease the interactions between responders and entangled animals to increase safety for all involved.

Fast-forward to October 2018. The Marine Mammal Stranding Network hotline and I received almost simultaneous calls: there was a humpback in Unalaska Bay trailing buoys. Within hours, local trained responders have eyes on the whale, watching its movement.

aerial view of men in raft using pole to cut line from entangled whale

NOAA’s John Moran cuts line entangling a whale. Andy Dietrick/NOAA. MMHSRP Permit #18786-03.

The following day, initial footage is gathered. The whale is wrapped in nearly 600 feet of cod pot gear line with several buoys attached. We quickly determine that without intervention, this whale will not be able to free itself. Further struggles by the whale to free itself cause the entangling line to hog-tie its head to the flukes, sucking the tail under its body. Unable to swim and anchored to the seafloor by what appears to be two cod pots weighing up to 800 pounds each, the whale was trapped.

Unalaska/Dutch Harbor response equipment was readied and local trained responders were called. John Moran, a Juneau-based NOAA Fisheries humpback whale biologist, was flown in to lead the local responders.

The response team set out in a raft and another vessel with support from the City of Unalaska Department of Ports and Harbors, and an overhead drone was flown by Aleutian Aerial to provide a birds-eye view of how the lines wrapped around the whale’s head and flukes.

A raft and small boat in a bay, with 6 people and whale disentanglement equipment.

The response team included Unalaska residents, as well as officials from NOAA, the City of Unalaska, and Alaska Sea Grant. Andy Dietrick/NOAA. MMHSRP Permit #18786-03.

“It took 12 hours and over two days on the water to cut the lines binding the whale,” said Moran. “Suddenly there was a popping sound, and the gear floated to the top. Apparently, a cutting grapple hook had taken about an hour to work through the line and cut it loose. Then we saw the whale swimming freely and knew it was free of the entanglement.”

Our efforts and planning came together to save this whale. Local equipment and volunteers were at hand. National, statewide and regional coordinators worked together to assess the situation and organize a successful and safe response.

A person on a raft with a long flexible pole with a knife attached at the end reaches toward an entangled whale

A knife attached to a long pole is used to cut the entangling lines. Andy Dietrick/NOAA. MMHSRP Permit #18786-03.

The use of drone technology was a huge advantage to our response capabilities. The ability to decrease the interactions between responders and an entangled animal increased the safety for all involved.

There are a couple of reasons for the uptick in whale entanglements in Unalaska Bay.

Over the past few years, there has been a significant increase in the observations of humpbacks in Unalaska Bay. (No population estimate or identification surveys have yet been conducted). Unalaska residents have gone from seeing a few humpbacks throughout the summer to large groups visiting for the entire summer late into the fall. It is not uncommon for people to say they counted 50 humpbacks on one outing into Unalaska Bay.

With more whales in the area, it makes sense that we are receiving more reports of distressed animals. Coincidentally, with the increase in humpbacks present in Unalaska Bay we also saw the establishment in 2014 of a new state-waters pot cod fishery. The Dutch Harbor Subarea fishery has become increasingly popular, especially with the recent reduction in Pacific cod in the Gulf of Alaska. This fishery is likely to see more participation by pot cod vessels in the near future, bringing in even more pots around Unalaska.

Recently, the Alaska Board of Fisheries announced it will increase the percentage of Pacific cod allocated to the Dutch Harbor Subarea from 6.4 percent of the federal Bering Sea Subarea quota to 8 percent, with additional increases of 1 percent for each year following successful harvest of the full quota. This does not increase the total amount of cod being taken from the area but changes the gear type. The area will now see a reduction in longliner and trawl effort and an increase in pot effort. That means more pots in the water just outside of Unalaska Bay, potentially for a longer period of time.

Whale entanglements may increase with these new developments.

It makes me wonder what we can do to reduce the likelihood of further entanglements.

East Coast fisheries are taking drastic measures such as large-area closures to reduce entanglements with Atlantic right whales. On the West Coast, efforts include educating Dungeness fisherman on best practices for reducing chances of entanglements.

I would like to see agency officials, scientists and fishermen work together to see what we can do collectively to reduce whale entanglements. No one wants to see an entangled whale.

I would like to recognize the partners who worked on last month’s response efforts, including NOAA Office of Protected Resources, University of Alaska Fairbanks Bristol Bay Campus, City of Unalaska, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, NOAA Office of Law Enforcement, Aleutian Aerial, Resolve Magone Marine Services, Alaska SeaLife Center, and NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.

I would also like to thank those who provided funding for the purchase of equipment. These include the John H. Prescott Marine Mammal Rescue Assistance Grant Program, NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Protected Resources Division, Alaska Region Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Network, and the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary’s Large Whale Entanglement Response Program.

Reports of marine mammals in distress should be directed to the NOAA Fisheries 24-hour Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline at 877-925-7773.

—by Melissa Good