Volunteers trained to respond to whale entanglements

man standing in front of classroom of adults

Ed Lyman provides classroom instruction to the whale disentanglement volunteers at the Ketchikan campus of UAS. Photo courtesy Gary Freitag.

When whales get entangled in fishing gear or other marine debris, it’s a potentially life-threatening event that takes a group of trained specialists to provide help. And with whale entanglements on the rise worldwide, it’s becoming an ever-more pressing need.

Last month, Alaska Sea Grant teamed up with Ed Lyman of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a large-whale entanglement response coordinator. Lyman and Alaska Sea Grant’s Gary Freitag helped train 13 volunteers to respond to whale entanglements. Participants included biologists, University of Alaska Southeast (UAS) staff, a bookshop owner and several others.

“It is not about trying to save every whale. One, we won’t be able to do that considering we don’t find them all—they are big needles in a bigger haystack—and two, conditions and resources don’t always allow a response,” Lyman said. “Instead, our primary objective is about gaining information in order to reduce the threat in the long run. This helps the animals, but also the fishermen when the debris involves fishing gear.”

Lyman is based in Maui, Hawai‘i, where he works for Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, operated by NOAA. He has been traveling to Alaska since 2005 to share his knowledge and expertise on how to disentangle whales. This is Lyman’s fourth time conducting the training in Ketchikan.

Lyman conducted the training at the Ketchikan campus of UAS.

(1) people looking at pieces of rescue equipment on a table, and (2) a person practicing throwing a grappling hook into the water from a pier.
(Top photo) Volunteers examine and learn about tools used in a whale disentanglement response. (Bottom photo) Participants practice hands-on skills used when responding to an entanglement. Photos by Gary Freitag/Alaska Sea Grant.

“The first order of business in responding to a report of an entangled whale is to assess the danger and prevent loss of life, fishing gear, vessels and the whales themselves, which are protected resources,” Freitag said. “Alaska Sea Grant plays a significant role in the Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network.”

The network is composed of state and federal wildlife and fisheries agencies, veterinary clinics, Alaska Native organizations, and academic institutions that respond to or provide professional advice on handling stranding’s.

Last month’s training was divided into two segments. The morning session consisted of classroom instruction while the afternoon session included hands-on training.

The morning session focused on a review of threats to entangled marine mammals from various types of entanglement debris and the potential danger to responders when working around marine mammals.

It also included a review of standard and proven operating procedures, tools used in a response, drones and cameras used to assess the entanglement type, and a framework for pooling available resources.

The afternoon session involved hands-on learning with tools such as long poles used in cutting lines from whales, satellite tracking buoys used to track entangled animals, and drogues to slow whales down to aid rescue efforts. Participants were also trained in line and boat handling during responses.

All 13 volunteers emerged fully trained to help in whale disentanglement, but Lyman emphasized that even the public can help in these situations.

“Reporting, documenting and monitoring—from a safe and legal distance—provides not only the information necessary for a rescue response, but also is the start of the information towards reducing the threat,” Lyman said.

If you see an injured, entangled or dead marine mammal, contact the NOAA Fisheries statewide 24-hour stranding hotline: (877) 925-7773.