Volunteers from Petersburg were not able to free a humpback whale tangled up in a gillnet near Petersburg on Friday and Saturday.

Members of Petersburg’s whale entanglement team Friday morning responded to the call of a whale caught in a gillnet in Frederick Sound. Petersburg Marine Mammal Center president and team member Barry Bracken said he and other volunteers boated out to the tangled whale, caught in gear still connected to the fishing boat around 11 a.m. Friday just north of Sukoi Island. That’s more than five miles north of Petersburg.

“We worked with the whale attached to the boat for a couple of hours,” Bracken said. “We were not making much headway with it. The whale at one point had swept under the boat and so we had the gillnet gear wrapped around the prop shaft so the boat was immobilized. We decided at that point it probably would be better to cut the whale free and try to work at it on it as a free swimming whale and allow the vessel with escort to return to Petersburg.”

Photo courtesy of Don Holmes

The entanglement team kept trying to cut the gear loose for several more hours Friday but were unable to free the animal. Instead they attached a buoy and tracking device, allowing them to find the whale again Saturday morning. By that point, the humpback had passed by Cape Fanshaw headed north in Frederick Sound.

Bracken described it as a large adult humpback with what looks like two wraps of lead-line from the gillnet. “It looks like those go back underneath the pectoral fins to a large mass of gear below the fluke,” he said. “The fluke is relatively clear, the blowhole itself is clear, there’s not much netting on the back of the animal, but it appears that there’s a very large mass of combined corkline, leadline and web that is just below the fluke so he can’t even raise his tail up out of the water and really can’t raise it close enough for us to get any kind of purchase on that.”

The North Pacific Large Whale Disentanglement Network, which includes the local team members, is tracking the whale. Local volunteers may try again to free the whale Wednesday if weather conditions are better and the animal has not travelled too far away from Petersburg. Otherwise it could be up to a disentanglement team from elsewhere in Southeast to try.

Frederick Sound has seen expanded fishing area for gillnetters this year due to strong returns of salmon, although the entanglement did not happen in the expanded fishing area near Mitkof Island. Boaters have also been reporting an unusually large number of humpbacks in local waters.

Bracken said this is the first response for the local entanglement team this year. “We were a little bit nervous when the expanded area was opened in Frederick Sound and we’d had more whales in the in the area than we’ve had for a number of years and so we’ve been kinda been keeping our fingers crossed that we’d make it though the season, not only for the sake of the whales but also the sake of the fishermen because it’s certainly no fun for them to have that level of involvement and the loss of fishing time and the destruction of gear and everything that goes with it. So we were really keeping our fingers crossed that it was gonna work out but unfortunately these things happen.”

Bracken notes the entanglement was documented by the National Marine Fisheries Service observer program. That program is in its second year of cataloging the gillnet fleet and interactions with marine mammals around Petersburg and Wrangell.