First Responder Trainings Aim to Reduce Threats to Whales
NOAA recently hosted multiple trainings and workshops in Metlakatla, Auke Bay, Gustavus, and Cordova, Alaska, on how best to respond to entangled whales in Alaska waters. These trainings brought together NOAA employees and our partner organizations to learn how to safely respond when encountering a large whale in distress. The skills learned are critical given the potential danger of approaching a whale in distress, especially entangled whales.
NOAA Fisheries leads the Alaska Large Whale Entanglement Response Program. It includes a team of advanced, authorized responders and trainers who are experts at using specialized equipment to safely and legally respond to entangled whales. The program also emphasizes the importance of first response (assessment and documentation from a safe and legal distance) from the on-water community in Alaska.
"Whale disentanglement is inherently risky due to the size and strength of a whale, so it makes sense to be as prepared as you possibly can be,” said Christine Gabriele, Humpback Whale Monitoring Program, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. "One of the most useful aspects of the training is the hands-on practice on using a grappling hook and other specialized tools. You don't want your first try at throwing a grapple to be when there's an entangled whale swimming next to the boat. Practice helps us to be safer and more effective."
Ed Lyman, Regional Large Whale Entanglement Response Coordinator with NOAA’s Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, led the trainings.
“While threats impact many animals, an entangled whale is essentially a very big needle in an even larger haystack—oceans. Because many large whales are able to drag the gear and swim off with it, we need to locate them, make an assessment on the entanglement, determine if an authorized response needs to be made by a trained and experienced team, and then monitor the entangled animal all from a safe and legal distance,” explained Ed.
Whales can become entangled when they swim though fishing gear and marine debris floating in the water column, such as rope, netting, and lines. If they get entangled in heavy fishing gear, anchors, or a mooring, they could end up pulling gear off the ocean floor and dragging it a long distance.
Entanglements impact whales’ movements and ability to feed, dive, and survive—imperiling their health and safety. Dragging heavy gear requires them to use extra energy, which can result in reduced reproduction, potentially leading to reduced population size.
In many cases, whales are able to self release from entangling gear or debris, but they carry the scars from injuries sustained during the entanglement. One study conducted in Southeast Alaska found that 78 percent of humpback whales surveyed showed evidence of entanglement scarring, indicating that the whales had survived entanglements.
How First Responders Aid Advanced Responders
Trained first responders are an essential part of the response network and can provide key details to assist with entanglement response. This includes reporting, documenting, and monitoring entangled whales, and relaying that information to advanced entanglement team members. The teams can then bring their expertise and specialized equipment to a response. NOAA Fisheries, in collaboration with NOAA’s Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, has hosted more than 100 response trainings from Dutch Harbor to Ketchikan, Alaska, over the years. The trainings ranged from first response to advanced entanglement response.
First responders are trained to make critical observations of the entangled whale:
- Photos and video of the whale (collected from a safe and legal distance of more than 100 yards)
- Location and condition of the whale
- Direction the whale is headed
- Information about the material entangling the whale
First responders learn how to prioritize and record key information, such as the entangling materials (type, color, and any markings or numbers) and where the entanglement is located on the whale's body. This will enable an assessment to determine if the entanglement is life threatening. Understanding what type of gear is present in an entanglement and how it impacts the whale allows for future gear modification research and robust outreach and education to reduce future entanglements.
What to do if You See an Entangled Whale
If you see an entangled whale, do not approach it. Contact those with the expertise, training, and specialized equipment to respond. Getting too close to a very large and likely distressed animal can be dangerous—even life threatening. Make predictable movements with your boat and avoid shifting gears or revving the engine. Entangled whales frequently avoid boats after repeated close encounters, making disentanglement efforts even more difficult, so it’s best to leave it to the experts.
“The best way for the on-water community to help rescue whales is to report an entangled whale ASAP to the NOAA Fisheries hotline. Being a first responder from a safe distance and providing the initial information about the entanglement is the foundation of our response efforts,” stated NOAA’s Sadie Wright, Alaska Region Large Whale Entanglement Response Coordinator.
NOAA’s 24/7 entanglement hotline can be reached at (877) 9-AKR-PRD ((877) 925-7773), or the U. S. Coast Guard can also relay VHF reports on Channel 16.
If you’re interested in learning more about becoming a first responder, take the online training developed by NOAA in partnership with The Nature Conservancy. It will teach you how to more effectively communicate with NOAA to help free entangled whales. These reports could also result in gaining valuable information towards better understanding and mitigating threats for both the marine mammals and humans as well.
On-Water Community Supports Response
Large whale entanglement response is truly a team effort—across communities and the globe. The Large Whale Entanglement Response Program in Alaska includes state and federal wildlife and fisheries agencies, wildlife response and veterinary organizations, Alaska Native organizations, and academic institutions. They all work together to help prevent future lethal whale entanglements and protect these magnificent species.
The on-water community can be the first to assist NOAA with entanglements by reporting sightings to the hotline or radioing the U.S. Coast Guard. These first responses are integral to supporting the network of trained, experienced, well-equipped responders throughout Alaska, while helping individual whales and reducing threats to their world-wide populations.