By Mikayla Heiss
BU News Service
BOSTON — Amy Knowlton stares at the mass of blubber. Fishing gear twists around the starving, endangered North Atlantic right whale’s body and trails several hundred feet behind. Its baleen, a series of plates used for filtering, is mangled after encountering ropes while swimming or filter feeding.
“The ability to feed was all messed up,” Knowlton said.
Fishing gear encounters are responsible for most right whale serious injuries and deaths, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 2018 report, and the odds of an entanglement are rising by 6.3% per year.
Scientists, fishermen and policy makers met on Wednesday in Maine to discuss this issue at the Ropeless Consortium’s second annual meeting. The North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium will continue the discussion of right whale conservation at their annual meeting Thursday and Friday. Stakeholders will be brought together to share information, providing a resource for management efforts.
“We here at the aquarium have been working hard on looking at reducing rope strengths and trying to get rope-less fishing as an option to reduce risk,” said Amy Knowlton, a Ropeless Consortium board member and senior scientist at the New England Aquarium.
The Ropeless Consortium, an independent nonprofit organization through Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, has facilitated discussion on recent technological innovations.
Rope-less fishing gear isn’t exactly rope-less. Rather, the ropes stay in a stationary box trap on the ocean floor. When fishermen send a signal, the rope is released, allowing the buoy to float to the surface.
With standard fishing gear, lines run from surface buoys to traps laid on the ocean floor, creating a maze of ropes whales must navigate through. This type of gear is commonly used by lobstermen for their bottom traps.
For the population to survive, less than one right whale can die from human-related activity per year, according to a paper published in Conservation Biology. In 2018, entanglements exceeded the limit by about two.
According to the consortium, rope-less technology may eliminate the threat of entanglement while allowing fishing activities to continue.
“There is only one solution, and that is ropeless gear,” said Dr. Christopher T. Taggart, a professor at Dalhousie University. He said oceanographers have been using this type of equipment for years.
Yet ropeless fishing remains illegal as regulations mandate fishermen use surface buoys to identify gear. Surface buoys serve as visual markers, allowing officials to check equipment and ensure it is being used legally.
A Massachusetts-based company, EdgeTech, is aiming to address concerns about gear regulation with a new app, said Rob Morris, EdgeTech Product Line Sales Engineer. When fishermen set traps, they upload the coordinates to a database. With full access to the database and release codes, officials will be able to check any rope-less trap.
Entanglements, which are energetically exhausting for female whales, contribute to the whales’ reduced calving rate. They also kill whales, on average, after six months of prolonged stress, the report stated.
There are only an approximate 400 North Atlantic right whales left. With this species inching closer to extinction, Taggart expressed his frustration.
“We made it to the moon and back with the technology and computers less than what is in your cell phone,” Taggart said. “Why can’t we stop killing whales with ropes?”