IFAW and Commercial Lobstermen Test New Whale-Safe Fishing Technology to Reduce Right Whale Entanglements

Update: On September 28th, 2018, the National Marine Fisheries Service released an advance notice of proposed rulemaking to solicit comments on modifying current restricted areas to allow trap/pot fishing that does not use vertical buoy lines (referred to as buoy-lineless or ropeless gear). This announcement will create an important opportunity for fishermen to test ropeless gear in real fishing conditions on a greater scale, a critical step toward developing ropeless gear that's safe for whales and works for fishermen. 

In July, a collaborative team from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association (MLA), and underwater technology manufacturer Desert Star Systems, set out on the waters of Cape Cod Bay, taking the first critical steps of a lengthy but promising path to save the North Atlantic right whale from possible extinction.  

For hundreds of years, the ‘right whale’ has inhabited waters from New England and Canada to the coasts of Georgia and Florida, areas heavy with both shipping traffic and commercial fishing. Once numbering in the hundreds of thousands, the population has dwindled to an estimated 435 individuals, decimated by unintentional ship strikes and chronic entanglements in fishing gear.  With 17 recorded deaths last year, and no new calves sighted in the most recent calving season, this iconic marine mammal is at a tipping point and the population will not recover without serious intervention.

Research shows that approximately 83 percent of right whales have experienced entanglement at least once in their lifetime, while entanglement related deaths accounted for 85% of diagnosed mortalities since 2010.  The urgent need to find a long-term solution has helped lay the foundation of collaboration between IFAW, MLA, and companies such as Desert Star to accelerate the development and adoption of whale-safe technology.     

Through the widespread implementation of whale-safe gear, we can decrease the number of vertical rope lines in the water to ensure safe passage through migration corridors and into critical feeding areas for right whales and all marine mammals. Removing harmful vertical lines could significantly reduce entanglements, and likely lead to reductions in fishery closures. With the potential economic upside created by fewer closures, commercial lobstermen will have the opportunity to stay on the water and maintain their way of life.  Ensuring the livelihood of local lobstermen while also ensuring the survival of the right whale itself is ultimately the most sustainable long-term solution.

The problems our marine team confronts are urgent, complicated, and often resistant to change.  These efforts require collaboration, fresh thinking and bold action. The testing of new whale-safe fishing gear via this collaborative and innovative partnership deliver on that – offering up the opportunity for a fundamental shift in bringing this majestic species back from a critical tipping point. Let’s get to work.

--CTH

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