The Right Line For Right Whales

The world is a bit safer this week than last for the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. As of Sunday, US fishermen from Down East Maine to the Florida Keys are now required to use sinking groundlines with their lobster traps. These heavier-than-water ropes are used to link 10 to 40 lobster traps into a long string or trawl. Regular groundline floats in water, creating looping arcs of rope between each lobster trap. But sinking groundlines lie along the seafloor, where they are safely out of reach of hungry right whales.

North Atlantic right whales feed by swimming through the ocean with their mouths wide open, sometimes for as long as 24 hours at a time. Because right whales often feed where lobstermen set their traps, the endangered whales occasionally become entangled by catching lobster ropes in their massive jaws. Over time, the rope can cut into their flesh, leading to infection, disease and sometimes death.

The new rule requiring sinking groundlines was put in place by NOAA’s Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team to reduce the risk of whale entanglements from lobster fishing. Entanglements with fishing gear—including non-sinking groundlines—is one of the greatest threats facing right whales today. By swapping their old line for the new sinking groundline, lobstermen are helping to remove one of the major threats facing right whales. Some lobstermen maintain miles of rope, and swapping old for new is no easy job—many kudos to all the fishermen who have dedicated their time to changing out their line.

Those miles of rope aren’t going to waste. The Maine Float-Rope Company collects old floating rope from lobstermen, and weaves the cast-off fishing gear into nearly indestructible doormats. The fishermen earn a bit by selling their ropes, and the Maine Float-Rope Company donates a portion of their profits to help protect the North Atlantic right whale.

Right whales aren’t saved yet—sinking ground lines are just one solution to one problem. The whales can still become entangled in vertical lines and other fishing gear, and more regulations are needed to ensure their safety and continued survival. But, thanks to this new requirement, as well as the passage of the ship strike rule last year, right whales are now safer from human threats than they’ve been in a very long time.

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