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Sun’aq Tribe of Kodiak trains to rescue entangled marine mammals

Sea lions on the floating dock near St. Herman Harbor on Near Island, May 28, 2023. (Courtesy of Matt Van Daele)
Sea lions on the floating dock near St. Herman Harbor on Near Island, May 28, 2023. (Courtesy of Matt Van Daele)

While most residents were celebrating CrabFest last month, a few Kodiak residents were out saving marine mammals. The Sun’aq Tribe of Kodiak and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rescued an entangled sea lion pup as part of training to rescue even more animals.

The Sun’aq Tribe of Kodiak is the archipelago’s main entity for responding to stranded marine mammals. Now, they’re working towards certification to respond to entangled animals as well.

Matt Van Daele is the tribe’s natural resources director. He said the certification would mean they could respond to injured marine mammals much faster than waiting for dispatched staff from NOAA.

“Right now, we have to wait for the team in Juneau to mobilize, get all the way across the Gulf of Alaska, come here, and help us out with these things,” he said. “If we’re able to get the certification and training, we’ll be able to do it ourselves.

The sea lion pup they rescued over Memorial Day Weekend was found on the floating dock near St. Herman Harbor. It was the team’s first successful entanglement rescue.

Van Daele said sea lions sometimes play with marine debris, but can get seriously hurt in the process. He said this pup was about a year old with some sail twine caught around her neck.

“It wasn’t just floating in the water like a string, it was actually a closed loop and it was already cutting,” Van Daele said. “It had cut through her skin, through her fat layer, and was already cutting into the muscle. So, if we had not intervened, she probably would have perished within four to six months.”

Saving entangled mammals is a long process. They have to carefully approach injured animals, watch for predators, and use tranquilizer darts, all before they even get to surgery. Once the operation is complete, crews administer a reversal to the tranquilizer and monitor the animal until it’s fully alert again.

The sea lion pup isn’t the only entangled animal out there. Van Daele says they found that pup while out searching for three other animals that were reported to have entanglement injuries.

“We’ve been getting consistent reports throughout the spring that these three animals had entanglement injuries, but of course, when everybody showed up to give us our training, they were nowhere to be found,” he said. “And so the last day that we ended up finding this pup instead that nobody had seen yet. So we know that there are a lot more out there that we’re not even aware of.”

The Sun’aq Tribe’s team will have their next training session later this summer. Entangled, injured, or stranded animals can be reported to NOAA by calling the Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network’s 24-hour Hotline at 877-925-7773.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story listed NOAA’s hotline for the West Coast region; it has since been corrected to list the hotline in Alaska.