In addition to three whales getting entangled in fishing and crab pot lines during the past few weeks, and concerns about unlimited numbers of tour boats watching the creatures this summer, officials said this week there’s another concern as two whales have apparently been struck and injured by vessels in the Juneau area this month.
“I don’t know that that is related to the whale watching industry,” said Sadie Wright, large whale entanglement response coordinator for the NOAA Fisheries Alaska Region, in an interview Wednesday. “I think it’s it’s coincidental, but it does seem like more than average numbers of entanglements and vessel strike reports close together near the Juneau area lately.”
However, Wright said the number of incidents this year isn’t abnormal since the totals tend to fluctuate.
“There hasn’t been a trend so much as peaks and valleys,” she said. “And the last couple of years I would characterize, looking at the number of reports that we’ve received, as relatively low entanglements. But this year certainly looks like we’re headed toward one of those peaks. We’re already above our average annual large whale entanglement reports. And we’re only in July.”
One boat strike was to a calf that sustained injuries not considered life-threatening, which was self-reported by a person affiliated with the vessel, said Suzie Teerlink, a marine mammal specialist and NOAA’s Alaska coordinator for the Whale SENSE program. She said the other apparent strike was reported by a whale watching boat that reported spotting a whale with injuries consistent with those inflicted by a vessel, but NOAA officials have not independently confirmed the incident.
The problem with entanglements resurfaced for the third time this month on July 17, when NOAA fisheries experts found a whale tangled up with a crab pot line near Favorite Reef, according to a report published by the agency Tuesday. Several other officials were brought to the location by a local whale-watching company to assist in the situation.
“The team patiently waited for the right opportunity to make a couple of strategic cuts to the gear using specialized cutting equipment designed to keep responders at a safe distance from the whale,” the report states. “They were able to remove much of the gear and were optimistic that the calf could shake loose any remaining section of the line.”
The entangled whale was the calf of a humpback NOAA officials have named Juneauite because of “her persistent preference to feed near Juneau each summer,” according to the report. Wright said it appears the incident was not due to human negligence.
“That actually was gear where it seemed like the person was following all the best practices,” she said. “They were using sinking line. They didn’t have a lot of scope on their crab pot. So sometimes these things happen even when we use our best practices.”
Two other whales entangled in fishing an crab lines were reported by NOAA officials on July 6.
Teerlink said the odds of more entanglements and vessel strikes involving whales predictably goes up when there is more human activity in an area.
“As you have more people, more businesses, more boats, more fishers and more whales everything increases, and therefore the opportunity for those types of interactions increases,” she said.
However, because vessels associated with whale watching tours are familiar with the species and their local behaviors, people working aboard them will often provide helpful information such as marking their location, Teerlink said. But ultimately there remains an element of uncertainty any time whales and vessels are in the same vicinity.
“Whales are unpredictable and even the most diligent mariners unfortunately pose the risk of interaction,” she said.
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