TAKE ACTION: join our efforts to protect large whales from entanglement

A fatal entanglement wound on a North Atlantic right whale.  Imagine being wrapped and encircled by thick rope, digging into your skin, pinning down an arm or a leg, making it difficult to move or eat. The rope literally weighs on you as you are forced to drag it around day after day, month after month, like a prisoner with iron chains around your ankles. Over time, the rope causes increasing irritation, cuts and burns, which can lead to serious infection. Perhaps you will be among the lucky ones, freed from your bindings, allowed the chance to recover, or perhaps you will not be strong enough and will succumb to your injuries. This is the fate of an entangled whale.

As whales dive down to feed, fishing lines (thick ropes), nets or other gear can get caught in their mouths, on their flippers or around their tails resulting in entanglement that can lead to extensive injuries or a slow, painful death. Whales that encounter fishing gear often panic and spin in an attempt to free themselves, a response that only entangles them further. In some cases the weight and strength of the gear can be too much to overcome, anchoring the whale to the bottom causing it to drown.

I was shocked and horrified when I first saw images of entanglement injuries and cannot imagine the pain these animals have suffered. With chronic entanglements the rope can end up cutting through skin and bone. In juveniles the rope has even become embedded in their body as they continue to grow.

This threat is particularly acute for North Atlantic right whales, whose population is estimated at only about 500 individuals. North Atlantic right whales, sometimes called the urban whale, migrate close to shore and tend to frequent areas close to ports. Sadly this puts them directly in the path of passing boats and means they tend to concentrate in the same areas with the greatest amount of fishing effort. Nearly three quarters of all right whales show scarring and other signs of entanglement.

In 2004, IFAW, in collaboration with the Massachusetts (MA) Lobstermen’s Association and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation supported a successful pilot project to subsidize the voluntary replacement of floating groundline with whale safer sinking groundline. Groundline is the fishing line that runs along the ocean bottom between traps, pots or gillnets or to the anchors on the end of these lines. Replacing floating line with heavy line that sinks means fewer whales get entangled in the line when diving down to feed. In 2008 this program was expanded to include the entire east coast, after consideration and development of recommendations by the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team (ALWTRT). This team composed of fishermen, state fisheries representatives, conservation groups, including IFAW, scientists and NOAA Fisheries Service helps inform the rules implemented to reduce injury and death of large whales (right, humpback, fin and minke) from incidental entanglement in fishing gear.

However the current rate of injuries and deaths due to entanglement still exceeds the amount prescribed to support recovery and protection of these whales. So a new rule is in development to address the additional risk from vertical lines that run from buoys at the surface down to the traps and pots on the bottom. Informed by the proposals of the ALWTRT members, NOAA has released a draft rule outlining a set of proposed alternatives. While each alternative has strengths and weaknesses IFAW is supportive of NOAA’s preferred alternative, Alternative 5. This alternative presents a positive, practical solution that incorporates proposals from NOAA, the states, conservation groups and scientists alike, and is expected to achieve the greatest reduction in risk to whales through reduction in total number of vertical lines, and inclusion of fishing closures in key areas with high co-occurrence of whales and fishing effort.

The Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), which analyzes the impacts of the proposed measures, is open for comment until September 13th, and public comments on the Proposed Rule are due by September 16th.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is also holding public hearings in August and September to provide additional opportunities for the public to provide feedback.

Join us in our efforts to protect large whales from entanglement, and submit comments now supporting this alternative, emphasizing to NOAA that this matter is an extremely important one. The survival of North Atlantic right whales may very well depend on the actions that NOAA takes in the coming years, with this rule being the next vital step.

--AW

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