Experts monitor tangled whale calf

Posted: Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Whale biologists are monitoring a humpback whale calf tangled in crab pot gear near Juneau this week.

The entangled whale, swimming with its mother, was first spotted by boaters on Friday at the intersection of Chatham and Peril straits.

It just so happened that a panel of whale experts was convening in Juneau for a meeting this week in Gustavus, so several of them attempted to remove the gear from the calf on Sunday, when it was swimming near Shelter Island. They were unsuccessful.

"They don't know how the lines lay and where the entanglement points are," said Sheila McLean, a spokeswoman for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Juneau.

The experts spent some hours trying to find out how the calf got tangled. "We gave it a good try on Sunday," said Aleria Jensen of the Fisheries Service's Protected Resources Division in Juneau.

The marine mammal experts will have to find where there is tension on the line to cut it at the right spot and free the calf.

At first it was believed the calf was caught in about 70 feet of line, but the best guess now is that it is more like 500 feet.

The whale experts were also constrained in their efforts by their fear for how the calf's mother would react to their efforts, McLean said.

"They may try again on Tuesday or Wednesday," McLean said.

She said the good news is that the whale is swimming freely and can dive to shallow depths.

The experts - including National Marine Fisheries Service staff members, whale researcher Jan Straley of Sitka, Fred Sharpe of the Alaska Whale Foundation and Chris Gabriele of the National Park Service - are meeting for an Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network workshop in Gustavus.

NMFS is asking anyone who sees the mother and calf to call the Coast Guard at 907-463-2000.

Whales getting tangled in fishing gear are not uncommon in Alaska. In July, biologists rescued a 20-foot humpback whale that had become tightly wrapped in crab pot lines near Kodiak. The young whale, discovered by fishermen, likely would have died that night if it had not been freed from ropes, two buoys and at least one heavy crab pot.

In June, a humpback calf was spotted near Juneau tangled in gillnet gear at the mouth of Gastineau Channel south of town. That calf also was with its mother. That situation did not lend itself to trying to free the whale.

In May, a fisherman pulled up his net to find a young humpback whale that had become tangled and died in the silty waters near Wrangell.



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