The dangers of entanglements

Commercial fishermen use nets and ropes to harvest their catch, but in the process, whales, dolphins and porpoises can become tangled in the gear. The problem is accidental, but the consequences can be fatal.

Whales, for instance, can find ropes and nets wrapped around their fins and flukes or become caught in their baleen plates. The whales might drown and die quickly, or live for weeks or months with the deadly gear tightening around them, leading to eventual infection, illness and often death. Nearly three-quarters of all known North Atlantic right whales have scars from past entanglements with commercial fishing gear.

IFAW has helped investigate solutions to these problems, working not only with the fishing industry but with local communities to help reduce the dangers.

Promoting ‘sinking ropes’ amongst lobstermen

Lobstermen use long ropes to attach their lobster traps to one another underwater. For many years, lobstermen used ropes that floated underwater. Because these ropes floated, they formed floating arches between neighbouring traps. Since right whales feed by swimming with their mouths wide open, they sometimes caught the loops of rope in their mouths, where they twisted and tangled in their baleen. Some right whales ended up trailing miles of rope behind them. This was not only dangerous, even deadly, for the whales, but very costly for the fishermen who had to replace lost and damaged rope and traps.

In 2004, we launched a pilot programme in Massachusetts, USA to help lobstermen replace dangerous floating rope with whale-friendly sinking rope. The programme was a success, and sinking ropes are now required for all commercial lobstermen working along the US Atlantic coast.

Preventing Entanglements in Fishing Nets

Around the world, many fishermen use large nets to catch fish. Unfortunately, dolphins and porpoises can become entangled in these nets, often drowning before the nets are retrieved.

Following reports of harbour porpoises frequently becoming entangled in the Baltic Sea, we conducted a population survey that revealed dangerously low population numbers. This research indicated that urgent action was needed to help the porpoises.

On the basis of this research, we have been working with local fishermen and conservation organisations to reduce the number of entanglements in the region.

Freeing Whales from Fishing Gear

Once a whale is tangled in fishing gear, it is hard, dangerous work to cut it free. Entangled whales are often frightened and injured, and will try to swim away or dive to escape their would-be rescuers. High seas, bad weather and remote locations can also combine to create challenging conditions, and sometimes it is simply too dangerous to try to free an entangled whale.

We work with volunteers and professionals to create new, safer and more effective methods of freeing right whales from fishing gear and ropes. For years, we have supported rescue efforts, including the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, a group of volunteer whale rescuers based on Canada’s Campobello Island, near Maine.