Supporting whale disentanglement and stranding team efforts in Tonga

IFAW supported workshops taught Tongans skills to manage strandings and to safely disentangle whales.

IFAW has had a long-standing involvement in supporting research on the humpback whale population of Oceania, and the sustainable development of whale-watching in the Polynesian sovereignty of Tonga, which hosts the largest local population of humpbacks in this vast region.

Mike Donoghue of the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) reports on a recent workshop—organized by SPREP, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the International Whaling Commission and partially funded by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW)— to provide training in the management of strandings and disentanglement of whales. -- BS


The Tongan island archipelago of Vava’u has seen a remarkable transformation in attitudes towards whales in the course of one human generation.

For most of the 20th Century, humpbacks were the target of a subsistence hunt in Vava’u, which was only ended in 1978 by Royal Decree.  By that time, the Tongan whale population had probably been reduced to less than 50 animals. Now, however, these numbers have grown to more than 2,000, and Vava’u is widely acknowledged as the leading destination for whale-watching in the South Pacific, bringing in millions of dollars in tourist revenues every winter.  It is one of the world's great conservation success stories: The grandchildren of whalers are now taking tourists to see humpbacks in an idyllic tropical setting.

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With IFAW's support and specialist trainers from the Pacific University of Hawaii and the International Whaling Commission, SPREP recently convened a workshop in Vava’u to provide participants from Tonga and nearby Vanuatu with the information and skills needed to manage strandings and to safely disentangle whales. 

Although there is little trawling or fishing with trap-pots in the Pacific Islands, an increasing number of whales are now being reported from tropical waters trailing or entangled in netting or rope, mostly collected in the cooler waters of their migratory routes.  Removing this debris is essential if the animal is to survive, but can be extremely dangerous for untrained would-be rescuers.

With help from several international agencies the International Whaling Commission has developed a Best International Practice approach for safe disentanglement, and David Matilla of the IWC travelled from Cape Cod to Vava’u to deliver a 2-day training.

Workshop participants practiced in sheltered waters with the custom designed gear.

This could not have been more timely, since whale-watch vessels reported a whale trailing rope the day that he arrived. Although the weather was too rough to get out to the open waters where the animal had been reported, participants were able to practice the art of safe disentanglement in sheltered waters with the custom designed gear developed for this purpose, and a kit was left behind in Vava’u with a cadre of trained and competent volunteers.  Hopefully by the time this goes to press, the team will have had its first success. 

A further disentanglement kit will be provided for Vanuatu in the next few months.

Although live strandings are relatively infrequent in the Pacific Islands (whales and dolphins rarely survive for very long after being washed over reefs onto beaches), much can be learned from knowing how to approach a stranding event, and adopting the correct procedure to maximise the collection of valuable data.

Participants also learned how to manage a live stranding and how to deal with the public at a stranding. A protocol was developed for the collection of samples and their transport to the Pacific University of Hawaii, which (in association with NOAA) will provide support for the newly-established stranding network.

SPREP is delighted to have partnered with IFAW on this training, and we look forward to more collaborations to help make the Pacific Islands a safer place for whales.


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Brian Sharp, Emergency Relief Officer, Stranding Coordinator
Manager, Marine Mammal Rescue and Research
Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation
Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation Program
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Patrick Ramage, Program Director, Whales
Program Director, Marine Conservation