How We Save Whales From Deadly Fishing Gear

I remember the first time I saw a North Atlantic right whale. I was on a boat off Provincetown, Massachusetts, and I turned my head just in time to see a right whale peek its callosities-studded head above the water before quickly diving back down.

It’s an experience I’ll never forget.

But it’s getting much harder to spot these amazing animals. Not because I now live on the West Coast, but because the whales are spiraling toward extinction, declining to fewer than 340 animals in 2020 — a 30% drop since 2011.

Entanglement in commercial fishing gear is the leading cause of death for these critically endangered whales. And when entanglement doesn’t kill them outright, it can cause immense suffering and devastating, long-term injuries. Entanglement also threatens a wide range of other species, including blue whales, humpback whales, sperm whales and Pacific leatherback sea turtles.

Entanglement begins when an animal swims into the rope, or vertical line, that runs from a buoy at or near the water’s surface to a trap, or “pot,” set on the seafloor:

The heavy fishing rope, which is usually connected to an even heavier trap, can wrap around the animal’s head, mouth, flippers or tail.

Entanglement can prevent the animal from resurfacing, resulting in drowning. Even when the outcome isn’t death, it can impede basic movement, feeding and reproduction, and cause chronic infection and damage to bone and muscle.

Consider Snow Cone, a North Atlantic right whale recently spotted with a newborn calf off the Georgia coast. Snow Cone is dragging a length of fishing rope that appears to be embedded in or around her mouth. Dragging that heavy rope makes everything harder — especially for a new mom. Experts worry it may be a death sentence for both Snow Cone and her baby.

Fortunately, there’s a solution to entanglements: ropeless fishing gear.

Also known as “on-demand” or “pop-up buoy” gear, it eliminates or reduces entanglement risk by removing the unattended vertical line running from the water’s surface to seafloor. Ropeless gear has been developed with input from the fishing industry and is based on technology that’s been used for decades in other oceanographic applications, such as the marine salvage industry.

There are various kinds of ropeless gear.

One kind uses a buoyant line spooled inside a mesh bag or cage at the top of the trap. An acoustic signal sent from the fishing boat opens the container, which releases the line. The line floats to the surface, allowing the trap to be retrieved.

Another kind uses a deflated bag attached to a single trap or string of traps (trawl). To retrieve the trap, the fishing boat sends an acoustic signal that inflates the bag from a connected compressed air tank. The inflated bag lifts the trap or trawl to the surface.

Ropeless fishing gear is the only way to prevent entanglements while allowing fishing to continue. The National Marine Fisheries Service itself describes it as “game changing” and “a future solution to whale entanglement.”

But that future will never be realized unless the Service mandates the adoption of this gear. That’s why the organization where I work, the Center for Biological Diversity, has filed a legal rulemaking petition pushing the federal government to require the use of ropeless gear in trap and pot fisheries within the next five years. A legal requirement to use such gear will boost technological developments and investments that bring down the cost.

Commercial fishing gear has been injuring and killing endangered whales, sea turtles, and other marine animals off our coasts for far too long. Wildlife shouldn’t have to suffer and die from entanglements — especially not when there’s a technological fix.

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