NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — Whales and fishing gear increasingly occupy the same areas of ocean in the Gulf of Maine, and whales being injured or killed by entanglement with gear continues to be a top concern of scientists and regulators.
While most Maine lobstermen say they have never even seen a right whale close to the Maine coast, statistics collected by NOAA explain why right whales are exposed to a high risk of entanglement off the Maine coast.
Based on data collected by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, there are some 2.9 million lobster traps in the water within 50 miles of the Maine coast. Even with an average of fewer than five whales per month passing through Maine waters, the density of gear makes the risk of entanglement very high.
Last week, scientists and other interested parties met for a day-long meeting on one idea they hope will reduce entanglements: ropeless fishing. The Ropeless Consortium meeting was held Nov. 6, the day before the annual meeting of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium (NARWC) at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. The meeting was closed to the press, but an agenda and overview of the meeting was available online.
“It was very cool to see how advanced the technology is and the many companies and groups working on development around the world,” said Zack Klyver, lead naturalist for Bar Harbor Whale Watch, who attended the meeting. “The conservation community were excited about the idea that this could be a long-term 100 percent fix to all whale entanglement.”
Ropeless fishing techniques could reduce trap loss and ghost gear, he said, and potentially make waterways safer to boat traffic.
Techniques already being tested include a “grapple method” of hauling traps, according to a materials presented by Michael Moore of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
This method was piloted by the Pemaquid Fishermen’s Coop in 2012 with a NOAA grant. Instead of using lobster traps attached by rope to a buoy on the surface, traps were located by GPS and hauled by a grapple hooks. Haul time averaged 14.2 minutes per trap, as opposed to one minute per trap using the traditional method.
“Not all designs presented were based on ‘ropeless,’” Klyver said.
One design uses a spool of rope installed on the trap that is triggered by an electronic signal from a boat. Another calls for inflatable bags, also triggered by a signal from the surface, that would lift the entire trap.
Many of these options were also presented to Maine lobstermen at the Maine Fisherman’s Forum in March. No cost estimate was yet available for such a system, but even at $30 per trap, a figure that was mentioned, a lobsterman with 800 traps in the water would face a $24,000 investment. Klyver said many at the NARWC conference acknowledged that the cost of new gear could be a major obstacle.
There seems to be no doubt that entanglement in still a problem despite the lobster industry’s conversion of an estimated 27,000 miles of floating groundline between traps to sinking groundline in 2009 and the removal of some 2,740 miles of vertical buoy lines in the water required by new regulations imposed in 2015.
The North Atlantic right whale population is estimated to be 451, according to NARWC, making the species officially endangered.
Of the 17 right whales deaths last year, four definitely were caused by entanglement in fishing gear, compared with five resulting from ship strikes. Two of the whales who died as a result of entanglement were recovered in U.S. waters, according to David Morin of NOAA Fisheries. Between 2000 and 2015, deaths from ship strikes have declined sharply, while those from entanglements have increased.
With calculations showing that adult breeding females make up 23 percent of the population, about 105 whales, scientists believe there could be no breeding females left, and accordingly no more whale calves, within 23 years. And whale births already are in decline. What’s more, while 17 whales died last year, only five calves were born in 2017, a sharp decline from previous years.
Several factors affect the whales’ declining birth rate. One is that changes in the environment have made it harder for whales to find enough food, and so the females are not getting fat enough to bear calves. Another problem is that females who become entangled in fishing gear take a long time to recover from their injuries — if they ever do — and delay having calves.
Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Pat Keliher was quoted in the Portland Press Herald in April saying, “None of the [right whale] mortalities have any relationship back to the Maine [lobster] fishery.” The right whales that died from entanglement in 2017 in Canadian waters were entangled in snow crab fishing hear, he said.
Stephen Rappaport contributed to this story.