Whale's survival needs fishers, regulators to innovate to avoid entanglements: film (2024)

HALIFAX — David Abel sees a clear solution to the human threat posed to North Atlantic right whales, involving a rethink of the rope-based methods of lobster fishing off New England and Atlantic Canada.

The Boston Globe journalist and documentary maker, along with producer Andy Laub, laid out the vision in the film "Entangled" released this week. It portrays the tensions between environmentalists, regulators and lobster harvesters during 2019 as the whale appeared on the way to potential extinction.

Warming waters in the northeastern Atlantic have put the whales on a collision course with fishing gear in lobster and crab areas, as well as bringing the animals into shipping lanes where vessel strikes are more probable, the documentary notes.

The threats have created challenges for the National Marine Fisheries Service in the United States and the federal Fisheries Department, as they've have struggled to balance the vying interests of an endangered species with the need to preserve a mainstay fishery of northeastern North America's coastal communities.

The film argues the issue is how to address the hundreds of thousands of vertical fishing lines used to mark the spot where lobster traps — known as "trawls" — are set, without damaging the livelihoods of small-scale fishers.

"Ropeless fishing is the future," said Abel in an interview last week from his home in Boston, referring to various technologies that remove vertical lines from trap setting and retrieval.

The movie opens, and is interwoven with, stirring images shot from overhead and alongside the whales, as the majestic and curious mammal appears to revel in its ocean environment.

"The right whale is one of the wonders of the living world, but if something in our management doesn't change, the direction of the population points to zero, and that's extinction," Scott Kraus, chief scientist at the New England Aquarium, says during the documentary.

Kraus and others make the case that with a population estimated to be below 400 animals, only one death a year should occur from human causes — a figure that up until 2020 was being exceeded every year for two decades.

The 74-minute documentary uses a New England Aquarium computer animation to help the viewer visualize a whale catching on the vertical lines, spinning and becoming further entangled with the next line.

The heavy lines that tear into their bodies can sometimes mean a slow death sentence that lasts up to six months.

In response, an annual three-month closure of Cape Cod Bay to lobster harvesters began in 2015, along with widespread closures of fishing areas in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada.

"It hit, it hit hard. I had college payments to make, mortgage payments. It seemed to get tougher and tougher every year...I don't want to see any more closures, I want to see scientists and fishers work together," Rob Martin, a lobster fisher in Massachusetts, told the documentary makers.

Abel said in an interview one of the most promising solutions to the problem could be advancements in fishing gear, where the location of the trawl is marked with acoustic signals and various technologies are employed to lift the first trap off the ocean bottom during retrieval.

He said in Massachusetts, where some fishing areas are closed from February until May, new regulations are coming in that will allow fishers to experiment with the gear.

Near the end of the documentary, viewers are shown one system under development as Richard Riels, the founder of the Sea Mammal Education Learning Technology Society, or SMELTS, invites the journalists into his workshop in Washington State.

He's created a system of lineless lobster traps where an underwater signal is set to report the trap's position. When the fisher returns, an inflation system is used to bring it back to the surface.

"The technology is there. If we can afford it, we don't know. Can we get enough of it built to affect global industry? It's a big challenge," said Riels.

In Canada, systems of closures of lobster and crab areas are keeping the mortality rates down from entanglements for now. Data from the federal fisheries department shows there were no North Atlantic right whale deaths or new entanglements reported in Canadian waters in 2020 or as of June 18, 2021.

The Department closes fishing areas when their detection systems spot whales, with season-long closures occurring over 11,559 square kilometres and temporary closures occurring over about 11,000 square kilometres this year, department spokesman Barre Campbell wrote in an email.

Meanwhile, Campbell said the department is open to industry expanding their ropeless gear trials in closed areas this year.

Ross Arsenault, co-founder of Halifax-based Ashored Ltd., has worked with his team to create a buoy that goes underwater with the traps, with a retrieval system that floats it to the surface when it's time to haul in the catch.

He's doing pilot projects with fishers around the region, and said costs are rapidly falling as innovations are developed.

Arsenault said the goal is to have gear that will pay back for fishers "in a couple of years," in part due to reduced gear loss as a result of the tracking system.

However, he said federal financial encouragement and regulation will be the key.

"It comes down to the government. How quickly do they want to implement this at a large scale? How quickly active to they want to be in preventing entanglements?"

Campbell said the Fisheries Department has not yet set a target or cap for the increase to the number of ropeless traps that may be allowed.

"Any increase of ropeless traps will be largely based on industry interest and their experience and comfort with using this type of gear, to ensure it's safe," he wrote.

The spokesman noted industry can submit ropeless gear proposals to the Atlantic Fisheries Fund, a contribution program paid for by the federal and provincial governments.

Abel's documentary includes a number of scientists who argue government encouragement for ropeless gear can't come too soon.

"Climate change is scrambling the equation and as the planet warms, we're going to have more conflicts over how to protect species while also protecting vital industrial and commercial ventures," said the filmmaker.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 20, 2021.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press

Whale's survival needs fishers, regulators to innovate to avoid entanglements: film (2024)


Why are right whales dying? ›

Human impacts continue to threaten the survival of this species. Vessel strikes are one of the leading causes of the ongoing North Atlantic right whale Unusual Mortality Event. The loss of a reproductive female is particularly devastating to the population, and this whale had a young, dependent calf.

What is the problem with the right whale? ›

North Atlantic right whales have been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act since 1970. There are approximately 360 individuals remaining, including fewer than 70 reproductively active females. Human impacts continue to threaten the survival of this species.

How many right whales have died? ›

6 more rows

Why are so many whales dying in 2024? ›

The big picture: Officials don't know why these whale species are dying at unprecedented rates, but some sort of human interaction, like a ship strike or entanglement, are at play in around 40% of examined cases, per WTKR.

What is the main cause of whale deaths? ›

Vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are the greatest human threats to large whales.

Why do right whales get entangled? ›

As right whales swim and look for food in these waters, they sometimes bump into the buoy lines and become startled. This may cause them to roll into the rope and quickly become entangled.

What is the lifespan of a right whale? ›

There is little data on their lifespan but it is believed to be at least 70 years, although individuals in species closely related to right whales have been found to live more than 100 years. Currently, female North Atlantic Right whales live on average 45 years and males 65 years.

Why are whales going extinct? ›

Many of the world's busiest shipping and ferry lanes overlap directly with areas where whales feed, give birth, nurse their young, or travel between feeding and breeding grounds. Collisions with ships, entanglement in fishing gear (known as bycatch), and pollution injure and kill whales.

What country kills the most whales? ›

Norway kills the most whales each year out of the three – slaughtering 580 minke whales in 2022, the highest count since 2016. The Scandinavian state was one of the few governments worldwide to register a formal objection to the 1986 ban, and continues to ignore it to export whale meat to Japan.

Are there only 73 killer whales left? ›

With 73 individuals remaining, southern resident killer whales, or orcas, are the only endangered population of killer whales in the U.S. They spend the spring, summer and fall hunting for salmon throughout the inland and coastal waterways of Washington and British Columbia, and venture as far south as the coastal ...

What is the rarest whale? ›

Spade-toothed Whale (Mesoplodon traversii):

Considered one of the rarest and least understood whales. Only known from a few strandings.

Why are whales dying right now? ›

And it is distracting people from what is really killing the whales: vessel strikes, climate change, plastic pollution, and entanglement in fishing gear and marine debris. “I've been doing this for 47 years,” Dean says. “We had a lot of whale deaths in 2023, but there have been years we've had more.

Are right whales coming back? ›

BOSTON, MASS. (July 20, 2022) – North Atlantic right whales are returning to a historically significant whaling area in southern New England waters at a time when the rapidly warming ocean is shifting the whales' feeding and migration patterns.

Why are right whales hunted? ›

Whalers labeled these animals "right whales" because they considered them the "right" whales to hunt. They swam slowly in coastal waters, floated when dead, and yielded large amounts of oil and baleen. Right whales had been hunted to near extinction when hunting was finally banned in 1935.

Why are whales killed today? ›

Over a thousand whales are killed each year for their meat and body parts to be sold for commercial gain. Their oil, blubber, and cartilage are used in pharmaceuticals and health supplements. Whale meat is even used in pet food, or served to tourists as a 'traditional dish'.

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