A humpback whale shows its fluke. (Ellen Chenoweth/NOAA Fisheries)

Federal wildlife officials are asking the public to be on the lookout for an entangled humpback whale reported near Sitka. They say the best way to help a whale caught up in lines or debris is to call in its location and to keep a safe distance.

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Whales can get entangled in all kinds of stuff from anchor lines to fishing gear to shrimp pots–which is what happened with this latest case near Sitka.

NOAA Fisheries received a report on Monday (6-29-20) of an entangled humpback just south of Sitka Sound near Tava Island. That’s about eight miles from where the owner of the shrimp pots set the lines the previous Saturday morning. Officials are asking seafaring Sitkans to call the NOAA hotline or the Coast Guard if they spot the entangled whale.

Large whale entanglements are infrequent in Alaska–NOAA Fisheries reported just 10 sightings statewide in 2018. But most of those occurred in Southeast, and when the giant creatures do get entangled, the results can be deadly, Alaska’s Large Whale Entanglement Response Coordinator Sadie Wright said.

“We know that any type of entanglement is a big energy expenditure for whales, so wasted energy dragging all this stuff around, but in worst case situations, entanglements can lead to the death of the animal,” Wright said.

But the public’s responsibility stops at communication, Wright said. Intervention can be dangerous for the whale and for humans. Props can get stuck in lines. And the public doesn’t always know the best course of action, like the good samaritans that cut buoys off the lines attached to this whale. Buoys actually help the team’s trained responders find large whales and figure out how to free them.

“Thank goodness that these good samaritans didn’t get hurt,” she said. “While well-intentioned, freeing a 40-ton animal is extremely dangerous for the animal and the would-be rescuer.”

 The team has specialized equipment that allows them to maintain distance and free the whale if necessary. But, they’re hopeful that this guy will free himself.

“Based on the speed that this animal was traveling, we think that it’s a strong and very mobile animal,” Wright said. “And we know that most entanglements of large whales end with the animal being able to free itself, so we’re hopeful that this animal’s able to do that.”

For mariners who want to help prevent entanglements, Wright suggested keeping unmonitored lines out of the water, especially when they’re not in use. And they can also take an online whale entanglement first responder training.