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Non-lethal entanglement of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in fishing gear in northern Southeast Alaska


*Janet L. Neilson, Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve, PO Box 140, Gustavus, AK 99826, USA.


Aim  Entanglement in fishing gear is recognized as a potentially significant source of serious injury and mortality for humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in some parts of their range. In recent years, the number of humpback whales reported to have been entangled in Alaska has increased. In 2003–04 we quantified the prevalence of non-lethal entanglements of humpback whales in northern Southeast Alaska (SEAK) with the ultimate goal of informing management discussions of the entanglement issue for the Central North Pacific stock of humpback whales.

Location  The near-shore waters of northern Southeast Alaska.

Methods  We photographed individual humpback whales’ caudal peduncles as they dived and then examined the photographs for scars indicative of a previous entanglement.

Results  The percentage of whales assessed to have been non-lethally entangled at some time in their lives ranged from 52% (minimal estimate) to 71% (conditional estimate) to 78% (maximal estimate). Of these, the conditional estimate is recommended because it is based solely on unambiguous scars. Eight per cent of the whales in one portion of the study area (Glacier Bay/Icy Strait) acquired new entanglement scars between 2003 and 2004, although the sample size was small. Calves were less likely than older whales to have entanglement scars, and males may be at higher risk than females. Whales with more photographs and/or photographic coverage may be more likely to be assessed as having been entangled than whales with fewer photographs and/or coverage.

Main conclusions  Caudal peduncle scars reveal that the majority of humpback whales in northern SEAK have been entangled. Comparison with statistics on reported entanglements suggests that most whales apparently shed the gear on their own, unless humans are disentangling whales much more often than is reported. While cumulative estimates of the percentage of whales with entanglement scars (e.g. the conditional estimate) provide useful baseline information, future efforts should focus on monitoring the annual rate of entanglement scar acquisition as a more powerful measure of contemporary entanglement rates. Our findings indicate that entanglement of humpback whales in fishing gear in SEAK is a management issue warranting increased attention. A proactive approach is needed to address the problem and to identify and implement preventive measures.