Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

Use Gear Markings to Help Save North Atlantic Right Whales

A North Atlantic right whale entangled in fishing line. Image via NOAA.

The North Atlantic right whale is in a dire state. With only about 440 individuals left in the population, an unprecedented number of deaths in 2017, and no new calves born in the 2017-2018 season, scientists predict that the species could be functionally extinct within 20 years.

Ship strike and fishing gear entanglement are the largest threats facing right whales. Fixed gear in the water column – such as ropes used in trap, pot, and gillnet fisheries – is particularly dangerous for right whales. In the years leading up to 2017, entanglement in fishing gear accounted for more than 85 percent of all right whale deaths. This threat is ever increasing as the U.S. lobster industry expands offshore and new trap/pot fisheries expand into southern New England waters.

NOAA Fisheries, the lead federal agency responsible for conserving right whales, has so far failed to take appropriate action to save this imperiled species – but it’s now or never. In addition to reducing the number of traps and fixed gear in the water, one helpful step that the agency can take right now is to expand gear markings in trap/pot fisheries.

Fishing Gear Needs to be Identifiable

During a recent comment period regarding new federal management measures for the lobster fishery, several advocacy groups requested that NOAA Fisheries require regional specific gear markings at a minimum of every 40 feet of line. This should only be an interim measure, though, until a kind of marking tape woven throughout the entire line can be developed.

The groups noted that additional gear markings – including information on gear configuration, line type, and area where the gear was fished to a finer spatial scale– are all needed to improve collection of data necessary to evaluate the interactions between fixed-gear fisheries and large whales.

Currently, when right whales and other marine mammals become entangled in fishing gear, it’s almost impossible to identify what type of gear it is or where it came from. But studies show that 90 percent of rope recovered from entanglements is longer than 40 feet, so by marking gear every 40 feet, managers would have a better chance of identifying it.

A Step in the Right Direction

NOAA Fisheries should implement these gear marking requirements immediately. In the event of an entanglement, managers need as much information as possible to understand how and why the entanglement occurred so that hopefully they can stop it from happening again.

Some members of the lobster industry may push back on gear markings – especially in a fishery where generations have shrouded their fishing practices and locations in mystery – but it’s time to work together on solutions, not further undocumented entanglements.

Additional gear markings are a step towards a future where right whales and fixed gear fisheries can hopefully coexist without harm.


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