A humpback whale entangled in fishing gear in Unalaska Bay ended up giving its body to art and science last week.
The whale was last seen barely alive, trailing lines from a big fishing pot, perhaps a crab pot, but probably used for catching Pacific cod, according to Melissa Good of the Marine Advisory Program.
It was towed toward town with a skiff by Qawalangin Tribe members Tom Robinson and Russell Shaishnikoff, and finally pulled ashore by Robinson’s truck.
Robinson said he “planted the Qawalangin Tribe’s flag” on the creature’s huge remains.
Robinson planned to salvage the baleen for art projects. Baleen, boney black plates used by the whales when eating, is a common art medium for carving in Arctic villages. The whales though, don’t usually die in the Aleutians.
Robinson said the last dead whale he recalled in Unalaska was back in the 1990s. The federal Marine Mammal Protection Act allows the subsistence harvest of the endangered humpback for subsistence food and arts purposes by Alaska Natives.
But Robinson said this whale was too far gone to eat safely, and the putrid odor from the corpse extended for hundreds of feet. Large chunks of white blubber covered with black skin were removed to gain access to internal organs.
Good figured the whale died about five days before the necropsy last Friday, when it was cut apart on the beach with long-bladed knives by citizen scientists standing knee-deep in stinky soft wet tissue in the belly of the beast.
“My guess would be it’s a cod pot because it’s nearby, but it’s possible it could be a crab pot,” Good said. She said she’ll know more when divers take a close look at the big pot’s configuration. The pot was underwater, and marked with a buoy, near the scene of the necropsy conducted by scientists, volunteers, teachers and high school students at Little South America.
The whale was dragging around two pots, the big pot, and a smaller subsistence Dungeness crab pot, she said.
Good said the whale probably drowned, due to the heavy fishing line in its mouth. The big pot’s line was one-inch thick, and wrapped around it was the narrower line from the small crab pot, she said.
But something else besides drowning could have killed it, Good said, possibly infections from the buoy line cutting into the marine mammal’s skin. More will be known when biological samples are analyzed by veterinarian Kathy Huntington, of Eagle River, who directed the operation involving cutting the whale into small pieces and placing blood and liver and other bodily fluid samples into vials for laboratory study.
Students competing in the statewide Tsunami Bowl from Unalaska High School helped measure and cut up the whale. Good said she coaches the team of five students along with science teacher David Gibson. The students are required to write a research paper on coastal resilience, and take part in a quiz contest in Seward.
The whales are now making their southbound migration from northern feeding grounds to the southern mating waters around Hawaii and Baja California.
This summer, the hungry humpbacks briefly delayed the Dutch Harbor food and bait herring fishery, with hundreds seen on the herring grounds, while the three fishing boats stayed off to the side waiting for their chance to catch herring with seine nets.
The humpbacks are “vulnerable to vessel collisions and entanglement in buoyed lines and nets,” according to the “Guide to marine mammals of Alaska,” by Kate Wynne.
The dead whale was measured at about 30 feet the size of a juvenile, since adult males reach an average length of 46 feet, and females grow to 49 feet long, according to Wynne.
Last year, a sickly-looking humpback was seen in Hawaii trailing buoys from a Bering Sea crab pot. The whale appeared underweight and unhealthy, said Ed Lyman, whale entanglement coordinator for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, in early 2014.
The buoy’s numbers identified the vessel, which fishes for Tanner and king crab and finfish in Alaska. Lyman, an employee of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, declined to name the fishing vessel, but praised the fisherman for his cooperation.
Lyman said the fisherman was extremely surprised to receive a phone call informing him that his buoys were transported to Hawaii by whale, several thousand miles to the south, and didn’t know that he was missing any buoys.
Lyman said the thick plastic line was entangled in the whale’s mouth and tail, and could interfere both with eating and maneuvering. Based on a Hawaii boat tour operator’s reports, the heavy crab pots were probably still not attached to the whale, he said.
The whale looked malnourished, and was covered with a thick carpeting of sea lice, he said. The three-quarters-inch diameter plastic line wrapped around the whale is probably better than thinner line which could cut deeper into the flesh, Lyman noted.
The line likely snapped off at the pot following an entanglement in 2013, he said. The pots weigh around 700 pounds each, and it’s unlikely a whale would have towed them all the way from Alaska. However, in 2007, an entangled whale was found in Hawaii with metal fragments from a crab pot, that had snapped off from a welded area, he said.
The whale may have accidentally encountered the fishing gear, or it may have been playing with it, which the humpbacks like to do sometimes, Lyman said.
Jim Paulin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
–From Bristol Bay Times