ANCHORAGE - A young humpback whale that may have been feeding in silty water near Wrangell became entangled in a fisherman's net and died.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the whale died sometime Wednesday between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. while the gillnet fisherman was fishing for king salmon.
The fisherman saw the whale dive near the boat but never saw it resurface, said NOAA fisheries spokeswoman Sheela McLean in Juneau.
When he pulled up his net, the 30-foot whale was entangled in it, she said.
"The whale had lines wrapped around much of its body but the tail was wrapped very tightly, the tail was caught," she said Thursday. "It is presumed to have drowned."
McLean said the fisherman, who she declined to identify, immediately notified the appropriate officials. NOAA fisheries enforcement officers helped the fisherman tow the whale away from the marine traffic lanes and to a beach west of Wrangell, where skin and blubber samples were taken for study.
McLean said researchers will test for contaminants. The skin will be used for a genetic analysis to try to identify the not-yet sexually mature animal.
"There was no wrongdoing on the fisherman's part. This was an unfortunate accident," McLean said.
Since 1970, humpback whales have been listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. The Central North Pacific group, which includes the Alaska whales, is estimated to be between 3,600 and 4,000 whales, according to the National Marine Fisheries Services.
The death of the apparently healthy whale presents a rare research opportunity, said senior veterinarian Pam Tuomi of the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward.
"Any opportunity to get a fresh animal is always a good opportunity we don't want to miss. Knowing the exact date of this death of this animal is unique," she said.
A veterinarian from the SeaLife Center flew to Wrangell on Thursday afternoon with a whale necropsy kit, Tuomi said.
Researchers will be testing for a variety of things, including taking blood to determine what diseases the whale may have been exposed to. Of particular concern is leptospirosis, a disease that has affected sea lions and harbor seals along the Washington and California coastlines.
Researchers also will be looking for the morbillo virus, which in recent years has broken out in seals in European waters.
"We haven't seen an outbreak on our coast, but we are monitoring," Tuomi said.
Once samples have been taken from the dead whale, they will have to be sorted and labeled and sent to labs outside Alaska for testing. Tuomi said the SeaLife Center does not expect to get results for months.
Wrangell is 155 miles south of Juneau.
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