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‘Ropeless’ consortium aims to end entanglements of declining North Atlantic right whales

  • ‘Fishermen, engineers, manufacturers, scientists and managers’ have come together to develop ropeless fishing gear to keep North Atlantic right whales from getting entangled.
  • Only 451 right whales are left, and it’s likely that fewer than 100 are breeding females.
  • Research teams have recorded no new calves this breeding season, which ended this month.
  • Scientists warn that the North Atlantic right whale could go extinct if the trend in their numbers doesn’t change.

North Atlantic right whales face an increasingly uncertain future. Despite two decades of intensive monitoring and protection, their numbers have hit a seven-year skid, with an estimated 451 right whales remaining. Now, however, a newly formed team of engineers, scientists, conservationists and fishers hope they’ve snagged a possible strategy to save these endangered whales from their most significant remaining threat: entanglement in fishing gear.

The approach hinges on developing so-called ropeless fishing gear. The goal of creating this modified equipment is to get rid of the long lines that connect traps, pots and nets to buoys or markers on the surface. North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis), at up to 14 meters (46 feet) long and weighing as much as 10 school buses, have a propensity for getting hung up in these ropes. Even if an entanglement with fishing gear doesn’t kill a whale from the injuries it inflicts, it may interfere with its ability to reproduce. The lines can slow the whale’s movement in the hunt for food, and that’s especially concerning for breeding females, as they try to bulk up enough to carry a baby through a 12-month pregnancy and then feed the 900-kilogram (1-ton) calf after it’s born.

A rescue team works to disentangle a right whale. Photo by NOAA Photo Library (post0025) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

A meeting in Woods Hole, Mass., on Feb. 1 launched the formation of a new ropeless consortium meant to “connect fishermen, engineers, manufacturers, scientists and managers,” according to a summary of the meeting. Throughout, scientists and engineers discussed ways to get around having vertical ropes attached to fishing equipment.

Typically, fishers access their traps, pots and nets with a fixed line that runs to the surface. But new technology would allow them to recover and check their gear for crabs, lobsters and fish using a remote control. One variant that’s currently being tested unspools a length of floating rope when it receives a signal from the boat above. Another prototype responds to an acoustic signal with the release of a burst of air that inflates a bag and carries the trap to the surface.

The consortium still has to work out considerations like cost and how the systems will handle in places with strong currents. And right now, ropeless fishing isn’t legal in the U.S. or Canada. With no markers at the surface, illegal fishers could use it as a way to hide their gear from the authorities.

Still, all of the ropeless strategies share the goal of stemming the hemorrhaging of the North Atlantic right whale population. The attendees agreed that a continued decline would be good for no one, as it could lead to the closure of fisheries as a last-ditch effort to keep whales safe.

“We believe such closures will devastate fixed fisheries and the communities that rely on them,” the authors of the summary wrote. “This is everyone’s problem — the fishing industry, wholesalers, retailers, consumers, government regulators, scientists, and conservationists.”

On another front, scientists and conservationists have been more successful in minimizing the threat that ship strikes pose to slow-swimming right whales. They’ve worked with shipping companies to alter their routes and avoid the areas where whales like to congregate. And large vessels now must slow down when they have to travel through these areas. Such measures helped the species wriggle from the grasp of extinction in 1990 when only 270 animals were left. By 2010, that figure swelled to 483.

A North Atlantic right whale. Photo courtesy of NOAA (in the public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.

But since then, numbers have dipped once again, and the persistent — and pervasive — problem of entanglement isn’t helping. A 2016 study found that 83 percent of right whales bear scars, if not the lingering ropes themselves, from prior run-ins with fishing gear.

“It’s such a common event for right whales, and all of them are suffering from a certain amount of damage,” said biologist Scott Kraus of the New England Aquarium at a meeting of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium in October 2017. Entanglements played a role in several of the 17 recorded right whale deaths in 2017, according to the most recent report card put out by the group. Such a staggering loss to the dwindling population led NOAA Fisheries to call it an “unusual mortality event.” The consortium reported in 2015 that entanglements caused 85 percent of the right whale deaths between 2010 and 2015.

Potentially compounding the energetic drain from entanglements, other recent research suggests that concentrations of copepods, a plankton staple of right whales’ diets, have shifted northward, perhaps due to climate change. That may be forcing a longer and more energy-intensive annual migration from the waters off the southeastern U.S. to the Gulf of Maine.

Right now, scientists believe that no more than 100 breeding females are left. “Given the current mortality rate, the species has about 20 years left before these 100 females are gone, at which point the species will be functionally extinct,” says the report from the ropeless consortium meeting.

The skeleton of “Stumpy,” a North Atlantic right whale whose death by ship strike helped lead to laws that require slower cargo ship speeds in whale migration routes. Exhibited at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, North Carolina. Photo and caption by Nate J E [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

In yet another blow to the species, the four-month calving season ended this month, but none of the teams studying the whales off the coast of Florida and Georgia saw a single calf.

“I keep thinking, when are we going to have that amazing rebound,” said Clay George, a wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, in a recent newsletter. “But it just [hasn’t] happened yet.”

As Kraus put it in October, “We have been working for 20 years to try to reduce entanglements in fishing gear. We have tried all kinds of things,” he said. “And yet, it hasn’t made a single difference in the rate … or the severity of entanglement.”

The new ropeless consortium hopes that they can change that track record.

Banner image of North Atlantic right whale courtesy of NOAA (photo in the public domain).

Follow John Cannon on Twitter: @johnccannon

CITATIONS

Kraus, S. D., Kenney, R. D., Mayo, C. A., McLellan, W. A., Moore, M. J., & Nowacek, D. P. (2016). Recent scientific publications cast doubt on North Atlantic right whale future. Frontiers in Marine Science, 3, 137.

Meyer‐Gutbrod, E. L., & Greene, C. H. (2018). Uncertain recovery of the North Atlantic right whale in a changing ocean. Global Change Biology, 24(1), 455-464.

Pettis, H. M., and Hamilton, P. K. (2015). North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium 2015 Annual Report Card. Report to the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, November 2015.

Pettis, H.M. et al. 2017. North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium Annual Report Card. Report to the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, October 2017.

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