Sun’aq Tribe prepares to respond to whale strandings

Breaching humpback whale. (Photo by Antarctica Bound/Flickr)

Mitch Borden/KMXT

The Sun’aq tribe is working on partnering with the Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network so some of its staff can respond to alive and dead whales that wash ashore in the Kodiak Archipelago.

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Kelly Krueger, a biologist for the Sun’aq Tribe, was one of the people who came face-to-face with one of the whales that stranded in Kodiak last year.

“I did find a humpback whale calf out at Burtons Ranch last year and I know there were about seven strandings on Kodiak.”

For the past two years, there hasn’t been anyone in the Kodiak region keeping track of strandings. Krueger says that’s why the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration approached the tribe about becoming a partner in its  Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network, which keeps track of strandings around the state.

A stranding can mean a marine mammal, like whales, washes ashore dead or alive. Krueger says the tribe will mostly focus on studying beached whales, which are a great way to assess what’s going on in the ocean.

“The whales are a huge indicator of what the ecosystem is doing and if it’s healthy or not. And trying to figure out why they’re stranding is a good way to see what’s happening out in the ocean and if there is something associated with paralytic shellfish poisoning. If there’s elevated levels of phytoplankton. It’s just helpful to see what’s going on, they’re a little bit of a snapshot of what’s going on in the gulf.”

This can be important information to have, especially when mass mortality events take place, like the one that happened a few years ago.

“There was a huge whale die-off and there were forty some whales in the Gulf of Alaska, Fin Whales [and] Humpback Whales, that died.”

Kodiak isn’t known for having a lot of strandings and whales aren’t really a subsistence resource in the region according to Krueger. But studying these animals can help scientists assess the health of other species that are critical to Alaskan Natives, like steller sea lions and sea otters.

Krueger says the Sun’aq Tribe taking on this role will help it study and preserve species that are important to Alutiiq culture.

“We just try and do a well-rounded amount of projects with different animals that the tribe has relied on for the past 7,500 years.”

Later this year, the Sun’aq Tribe will finalize a one-year trial agreement with the Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network. Krueger says the tribe should be fully prepared to respond to a stranded whale this summer, but only to those within reach of the Kodiak road system.

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