How innovations in fishing technology could save the North Atlantic right whale

Lobstermen and conservationists are finding common ground with ropeless fishing gear, but time is running out.

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A North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth, Mass. Six of the endangered right whales died in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in June 2019, prompting scientists and conservationists to call for a swift response to protect the endangered species. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)

A North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth, Mass. Six of the endangered right whales died in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in June 2019, prompting scientists and conservationists to call for a swift response to protect the endangered species. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)

Brian Sharp is trying to save the whales. He heads a team responsible for helping marine mammals in trouble at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) in southeastern Massachusetts, which is known as a hotspot of these creatures in crisis. As the experts, they’re team is often called to cases all over the world. Lately, they’re particularly concerned with the North Atlantic right whale, which is in danger of going extinct within our lifetimes.

Earlier this fall, he gave me a tour of IFAW’s rescue operations center in Yarmouth Port in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The large warehouse contains a necropsy center and response vehicles, some big enough for veterinarians to work on dolphins in the back of the van. But the right whale is so massive that teams have to provide care or perform the necropsy on site. He shows me the lower mandible of a one-and-a-half-year-old whale they responded to. It was sighted dead near Martha’s Vineyard, and washed ashore next to Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge off the coast of Cape Cod. They have the bone hung on the wall and it stretches longer than I am tall, and this is just a toddler’s jawbone.

IFAW responds to marine mammals in trouble, and when they’re too late, they try to determine a cause of death. Pictured is the lower mandible of a one-and-a-half year old North Atlantic right whale that died from a fishing gear entanglement. (Jenn Stanley/For WHYY)

When his team can’t save one of these animals, they try to find out the cause of death. This whale had been dead for weeks and was already very decomposed. All the skin was missing but Sharp says the carcass still told them a lot about its demise.

“We saw lacerations around the pectoral flipper which is consistent with entanglement related death,” Sharp said. The whales get trapped in the lines that attach lobster and crab traps on the ocean floor to a buoy on the surface.

There are currently only about 410 North Atlantic right whales living in the wild. Researchers say human activities are to blame for the small numbers. First, it was the whaling industry. It’s said that these whales got their name because they were the “right whale” to catch: they’re rich in blubber which was used to make whale oil, and their size and slow speed made them an easy target. When whaling came to an end in the U.S., the species began to recover. Then about a decade ago, researchers noticed that right whale deaths were outpacing births at an alarming rate.

Researchers say entanglements in fishing gear are the biggest threat to the species. Next is ship strikes and unsustainably low fertility rates, but experts believe entanglements are affecting those fertility rates. Ninety-five percent of entanglements happen to whales in their fertile years. They can keep whales from reproducing, and they have secondary effects as well, causing infections and extremely stressful conditions that can diminish fertility rates.

“If you’re up early in the morning and taking your dog for a walk in the woods, you’re the first one on the path and you run into spider webs,” Sharp said. “Now imagine if those spider webs could kill you.”

That’s the situation for the North Atlantic right whale. At up to 55 feet in length and about 80,000 pounds, these are some of the largest animals in the world. They eat zooplankton barely visible to the naked eye, so to get enough food they feed nearly constantly as they migrate north from Florida to the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada.

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The whales didn’t used to travel that far. The Gulf of Maine is one of the fastest warming bodies of water in the world. Lobsters are moving farther north and into deeper waters, preferring colder temperatures, and the lobstermen are following them. Warming waters have pushed zooplankton farther north as well, and the whales are following their food source, putting them on a collision course with lobstermen’s lines — the deadly spider webs in Sharp’s metaphor.

The lines are made of strong synthetic ropes that attach lobster traps, or pots, on the ocean floor to a distinctive buoy on the surface for the lobstermen to identify their catches.

“When [the whale’s] flippers are out there’s a lot of area that can become entangled,” Sharp said. “Research has shown that their first reaction is to turn away from [ropes on contact]. That starts the entanglement.”

These entanglements can get complex over time, like in the case of the most recent right whale death. A male over 40-years-old, well known to researchers as Snake Eyes because of the identifiable marks on its forehead, was sighted dead off of Long Island in September. Researchers had last seen it alive in the Gulf of St. Lawrence with line wrapped around its head. These entanglements become so severe that they cut into the muscle and blubber of the whale so the animal can’t swim. In some cases, their mouths are wrapped shut by the lines and they starve to death.

One way to stop entanglements is to limit traps, therefore ropes, in the water. That’s already happening in parts of Massachusetts, where some areas in the whale’s migratory path are restricted to lobstering. But it’s hard to say where the whales will be each year, and entanglements keep happening. Now federal and state regulators are proposing new regulations that could mean that some lobstermen in the region could lose up to half their yields.

Many lobstermen are opposed to these restrictions and are resistant to changing their methods. Others are being proactive, looking for whale safe techniques that they hope will allow them to fish in the closed-off areas. Rob Martin is one them. He and his girlfriend Lori Caron run a small shop out of their home in Sandwich called Salty Lou’s Lobster. It was named after one of their dogs.

Protected habitat closures began affecting Martin nearly 20 years ago. That’s when he started researching potential whale safe fishing methods so he’d be allowed back into the restricted areas.

Rob Martin prepares to take his boat out to rescue a sea turtle caught in some fishing line. (Jenn Stanley/For WHYY)

I visited him on his boat Resolve, in Sandwich Marina on Cape Cod to talk about some of the new technology he’s been trying. One method involves a breakable sleeve that’s similar to a finger trap you probably played with as a child — where the harder you pull, the tighter it stays on. He split the rope that connects the lobster pot on the ocean floor to the bouy on the surface, and the ropes are now held together with the breakable sleeve, which is long enough to cover the depth that the whales are likely to swim at.

“Hopefully if there was an entanglement, they could break out of it easily,” Martin said. “It couldn’t hogtie itself, it would end up breaking.”

Martin doesn’t want to see the whales get entangled, and he also doesn’t want to lose valuable fishing time. He and a few other lobstermen developed this sleeve technology using research on reduced rope breaking strength published by Amy Knowlton, a researcher at the New England Aquarium. Then he became more involved with efforts to rescue animals from entanglements.

Martin says that while lobstermen may contribute to the problem, they’re also deeply invested in preserving marine habitats. Many lobstermen feel they’ve been asked to shoulder more than their fair share of the blame for the right whale’s plight. What about their plight? They’ve been asking regulators.

The day I met Martin on his boat, he had to leave early to go help the aquarium with a turtle caught in some unidentified line.

“Instead of preaching about what should be done — I’m actually doing it,” he said, while we were on our way to go pick up the rescuers from the aquarium. “Like how a bunch of us came up with this breakable sleeve.”

But his sleeve is not authorized for use in the restricted areas, and researchers say this kind of approach is just not enough. Brian Sharp, from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, says ropeless fishing technology is the only sustainable way.

“In a lot of cases [the whales] will break the gear that they become entangled in. That doesn’t mean they’re going to survive it,” Sharp said. “Those entanglements can be so severe it can inhibit their feeding, it can inhibit their swimming ability, and the lines can cut in and cause systemic infections.”

Ropeless technology has come a long way, but it’s still very new and regulators have not approved it as a fishing method yet. Martin has also been working with marine technology manufacturer, Edgetech, to try out their ropeless gear, which uses acoustic technology so that fishermen can locate their gear without needing a permanent vertical line in the water.

“When we’re talking about acoustic technology, what we’re talking about is being able to send signals underwater from one device to another, command it to do something and it does it, and responds back to you,” Rob Morris, a product line sales manager at Edgetech said. He’s been working with Martin to test out the gear. Martin likes the technology and hopes to use it regularly some day, but fears that day is far off. Even if it’s approved as a fishing method, and even if it’s allowed in the restricted areas, it could be cost prohibitive for many fishermen.

Sharp, our whale rescuer, says he feels for the lobstermen, because they likely can’t do it alone. He says in order to make the change in time to save the whales, they’ll likely need more support.

“Give the industry the opportunity to change. No one out there wants right whales to go through this pain and suffering. This is all unintentional,” Sharp said. “We have to figure out a way to solve this problem, but this is an excellent example of how U.S. innovation can basically start something that is carried throughout the world.”

Martin agrees.

“You get a few fishermen and scientists working together, we can solve a problem,” Martin says. “I feel like we’ve come a long way on solving a lot of problems, just give us a chance to do it.”

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