Entangled humpback whale in Iliuliuk Bay near the Port of Dutch Harbor. Photos courtesy of NOAA Fisheries
Entangled humpback whale in Iliuliuk Bay near the Port of Dutch Harbor. Photos courtesy of NOAA Fisheries

A humpback whale hog-tied in fishing gear in Iliuliuk Bay, near the Port of Dutch Harbor, was freed from being anchored down in a high vessel traffic area, thanks to the team effort of NOAA Fisheries, partners and trained local volunteers. 

NOAA said in a statement issued on April 19 that the subadult male whale, who was first reported to be entangled on April 1, was freed on Friday, April 5. 

This was the first documented successful use of the whale disentanglement exoscope to free an entangled whale, the federal agency said. 

The whale appeared initially to be in good condition and able to breathe regularly. Alaska Marine Mammal Entanglement Response Network partners at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) used a GoPro pole camera to gather underwater imagery of the severity of the entanglement, which showed that the fishing gear was looped through the whale’s mouth and wrapped just forward of the whale’s flukes, essentially hog-tying the whale. Imagery showed that the entangling line stretched from the tail down to a heavy, unknown anchorage source in 100 feet of water, so the whale could not move away. 

Two NOAA large whale entanglement response experts flew to Unalaska on April 4 to lead the team in disentangling the whale. Their initial attempt to free the whale that afternoon, using specialized equipment, was thwarted by bad weather. On Friday, April 5, weather improved. 

The team proceeded to try again, with support from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley crew and associated small boat team, Alaska State Wildlife Troopers and the NOAA Office of Law Enforcement. 

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The team this time used a new live-streaming camera attached to a 28-foot pole behind a knife.  The camera allowed the team to watch the cutting action in near-real time, as strategic cuts were made remotely.  The team also made cuts to the rope on the outside of the exoscope, which is a high-definition digital imaging system.   

Using the exoscope, the team first cut the bridle line on the left side of the body, freeing the whale’s tail somewhat to allow the whale to pull the line from its mouth. The whale did not quickly respond, so the team made a second approach to cut the right side of the bridle, completely freeing the line from the mouth of the whale. The whale then released the wraps around its tail and swam away.  According to Sadie Wright, an assistant stranding program coordinator with NOAA Fisheries, there was still a small section of line in the whale’s mouth, but the team expected that the whale would be able to shed that line on its own. 

Asia Beder, assistant area management biologist for ADF&G for the Bering Sea-Aleutian Islands, said the incident was an emotional event for many people at Dutch Harbor.  

“Their patience and support of the trained response team, I think, made all the difference in this being a successful disentanglement,” she said. 

Gear on the seafloor that the whale was anchored to has not been recovered, but the underwater imagery provided good documentation of the entangled lines. 

NOAA officials said that in coming weeks, NOAA Fisheries and ADF&G planned to share the video and photos with gear experts, including commercial fishermen and fisheries managers, to identify the source of the gear. 

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