Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

The Right Rope for Right Whales

A new fishing rope design may help protect endangered North Atlantic right whales. Photo: Brian Skerry/New England Ocean Odyssey.

From fishermen to ferries to fauna, New England’s ocean is bustling with activity. With so much going on, there’s ample opportunity for things to get tangled up, literally.

Entanglement in fishing gear is one of the leading causes of injury and death for endangered North Atlantic right whales. According to the New England Aquarium, more than 70 percent of the population has scars from fishing gear. This is a serious issue for an animal whose population numbers are in the hundreds (some 550 are left) and whose feeding grounds double as a busy fishing area.

Earlier this year, NOAA designated the entirety of the Gulf of Maine as critical habit for the North Atlantic right whale. The Endangered Species Act mandates the designation of critical habitat, which requires other federal agencies to coordinate with NOAA in order to minimize threats to the species in question. While no direct management measures are associated with the designation, it emphasizes the need to increase protection efforts.

Weaker doesn’t mean worse

Currently, some seasonal closures exist to help prevent entanglements during times when right whales tend to be present in a certain area. Also, fishing gear and vessels are not permitted within 500 yards of a right whale. But these measures can only do so much. The threat comes from overly-strong fishing ropes floating in the water column, such as those connecting lobster traps to buoys on the surface. That is why the New England Aquarium is working with local fishermen to develop a new type of fishing rope, as recently highlighted by the Boston Globe.

As fishing gear has evolved, the ropes have become too strong for right whales to break. The new rope design from the New England Aquarium, however, is based on the strength of a right whale. Specifically, a typical rope will break with around 3,000 pounds of pressure, but the new rope will break with less than 1,700 pounds of pressure. That’s a win-win for fishermen and whales.

The Aquarium is also developing other ropes to reduce the threat of entanglement. This work includes sinking ropes that stay near the ocean bottom rather than in the water column, as well as ropes that are more visible to whales.

Fishermen and others are also on board

The South Shore Lobstermen’s Association is already testing a variation of rope that is divided into 40-foot sections of traditional rope, connected by weaker sections, or “sleeves.” The weaker sections are designed to break in the case of an entanglement, and the 40 feet of traditional rope should not pose a deadly threat to a whale, according to the Aquarium researcher.

Some fishermen see this new development as a potential compromise on closed areas. If there is a reduced threat to right whales, they reason, perhaps the length of seasonal closures could be shortened.

This is a project with widespread appeal. The state of Massachusetts has provided nearly $200,000 in funding, and numerous elected officials have expressed their support as well.

Ultimately, with the cooperation of researchers, fishermen, and decision-makers, this project has the potential to be a cooperative success story, and an important step toward saving a New England species in peril.


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