An Unlikely Alliance Forms to Save Whales From Deadly Entanglements

Lobster fishers and scientists in New England are collaborating on new kinds of ropes that will keep rare whales safe and fishing grounds open.

Scientists from NOAA Fisheries Service approach a young North Atlantic right whale they disentangled on Jan. 15, 2013, off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida. (Photo: NOAA News Archive/Flickr)

Jun 20, 2016· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

An unusual coalition of lobster fishers, marine scientists, and rope manufacturers is banding together to save the whales—and catch more lobsters.

The idea is to come up with buoy lines to mark submerged lobster traps that will break loose when a whale becomes entangled in them, which can seriously injure or even kill the animals.

A pair of grants worth nearly $200,000 was awarded Thursday by the Massachusetts Environmental Trust to help develop buoy lines that are strong enough to withstand the elements and haul in lobster traps but weak enough to prevent whale entanglements.

The effort to find the right balance was launched by the 109-member South Shore Lobstermen’s Association about two years ago after the National Marine Fisheries Service closed a 3,000-square-mile area off the coast of Massachusetts to fishers from February to April, when whales frequent those waters.

Many of the animals are North Atlantic right whales, the world’s most endangered great whale species. According to the Fisheries Service, 83 percent of these whales bear signs of entanglement in fishing gear, which killed or seriously injured an average of 3.4 right whales per year from 2009 through 2013.

RELATED: Cape Cod’s Most Unusual Tourists Are Some of the Rarest in the World

The fishing closure was an economic blow to lobster fishers, who typically catch 1.3 million pounds of the coveted crustaceans during that period, when wholesale prices are high, according to John Haviland, president of the South Shore association.

“The right whale population went from approximately 250 about 12 years ago to around 525 today, an increase of 100 percent,” Haviland said. “What’s going to happen if they increase to 600 or 700 and there is even more interaction between whales and lobstermen? My thought was to come up with a solution to coexist with them rather than have a closure.”

Haviland decided to try cutting buoy ropes every 40 feet and splicing them with “sleeves” made of hollowed-out cord used in gill-net fishing. When pulled, the sleeves tighten, holding the rope pieces together so that traps can be retrieved. But the sleeves, in theory at least, will break under the immense power of a large whale.

“So far, a handful of our fishermen have used them, and they work great,” said Mike Lane, the association’s vice president. But no whale has become entangled, so the new technique has yet to be put to the test.

“I don’t want to see a whale get wrapped up, but wouldn’t it be great if one did and got free?” Lane said.

The group received a grant of $18,000 to produce more sleeves and deploy them among its members beginning in the next few weeks.

The second grant, for $180,000, was awarded to the New England Aquarium to develop other prototypes for breakaway lines.

Amy Knowlton, a research scientist at the aquarium, was the lead author on a recent study of whale entanglements that determined that ropes should have a maximum “breaking strength” of 1,700 pounds, which “could reduce the number of life-threatening entanglements for large whales by at least 72 percent.” The median strength of 132 ropes retrieved from 70 entanglements was 2,600 pounds, according to the study.

Knowlton said the aquarium would use the grant to develop two or three prototypes of ropes in the next 18 months by working with manufacturers, an engineer, and a team of experts who will test the ropes through computer modeling.

“We will share our findings with the government and fishermen to ideally show that this can be an effective tool to help address the problem,” Knowlton said. “The fishermen will still be able to do their job, and the whales won’t get into trouble.”

If any of the prototypes prove to be effective, the lobster fishers can then petition the Fisheries Service to end the annual fishing closure in Massachusetts.

Knowlton said the new ropes might even become mandatory through federal regulations.

Kate Swails, a marine mammal policy analyst at the Fisheries Service, said the agency would consider the effectiveness and feasibility of any proposed new regulations to reduce whale entanglement.

“We’re always welcome to new ideas to make gear work better,” Swails said. “We all have the same end goal: to make sure whales don’t get entangled. However we get there is great.”