Changing gear to save right whales

First printed in the MLA Newsletter, September, 2011

In July, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) began the rulemaking process through a series of public scoping meetings to discuss options to reduce the risk of entangling endangered whales in lobster gear, specifically, in vertical lines. New whale rules will go into effect in 2012. To raise awareness about the importance of this rulemaking and help lobstermen understand why it is happening, the MLA newsletter is running a series of articles on endangered whales and the laws in place to protect them. The fourth part of this series looks at gear modifications designed to protect whales in the Gulf of Maine.

Since the inception of the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan (ALWTRP) in 1997, required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), fixed gear fishermen from Maine to Florida have found themselves beset by many changes to their fishing practices. Many lobstermen have found these constant alterations to fishing gear to be both a mental and a financial burden.

The MMPA limits the level of human impacts on North Atlantic right whales. Currently, the combined allowed rate of serious injury and mortality for these whales is less than one whale, or 0.7, per year. That rate includes whales affected by ship strikes as well as entanglement in fixed fishing gear. To help meet that goal, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has encouraged research to find ways that would allow fishermen to fish while reducing the threat that their gear would harm a right whale.

“All sorts of things have been discussed,” explained John Higgins, part of the gear specialist team at the NMFS office in Gloucester, Massachusetts. “Many aren’t even tried because they are non-starters with the industry.”

The federal whale plan has always contained a few common sense gear modifications such as no floating line at the surface and no wet storage of gear. In its early years, the plan included a gear technology list which allowed fishermen to choose an option to modify their gear — such as rope diameter, weak links or sinking line. The plan evolved to include a Dynamic Area Management (DAM) system to keep right whales and other endangered whale species away from fishing gear. A DAM could be declared by NMFS if a congregation of whales

The change to sinking groundline was costly for many lobstermen. MLA photo.

occurred in a specific area. Then lobstermen would have to either get their gear out of that area or fish only gear with required modifications such as sink groundline during the period when the whales were evident. “This didn’t work well for industry or for the whales,” Higgins said, “because the whales moved so much. It was not as effective as hoped.”

DAMs were replaced with the sinking groundline rule, which effectively removed the rope between lobster traps from the water column. This is to avoid entangling right whales, which occasionally dive to the bottom in search of food or to rub their skin against the seabed. The loops that float up between traps on a trawl were the cause of concern. Higgins said that many alterations to the groundline were tested by NMFS and the states, in cooperation with lobstermen and rope manufacturers. “There were lots of good ideas tossed around. We did lots of years of testing different options, such as weighted line, changing the composition of the line and so forth. But in the end the whale people said that any profile of the line poses too much risk to the whales.” Thus came the mandate for sinking groundlines.

Higgins noted that some gear modifications designed to keep right whales safe have actually been embraced by the lobster industry. “Prior to sinking line we had done a lot of research on weak links between the buoy and the surface system,” he said. “The industry down in southern New England came up with that idea. They were using weak links because they were dealing with so much boat traffic down there in Narragansett Bay and Massachusetts Bay.” Maine lobstermen initially didn’t like the notion but now find it useful for the same reasons their colleagues to the south did: boat traffic. “They like it now because when some sailboat or dragger comes by their gear doesn’t get dragged off never to be found,” Higgins explained.

NMFS has also funded various research projects in search of ways to reduce the risk of vertical lines, which could snag a feeding right whale or a whale in transit. Among these were research projects on ropeless lobster fishing. Skilligalee Inc. received funds from NMFS to conduct a two-year study looking at the feasibility of fishing traps without the use of vertical lines. This research compared a variety of factors such as the time it takes to haul and gear loss when compared to fishing with vertical lines. The Pemaquid Fishermen’s Cooperative is testing a device called a thwartable bottom link which is attached at the bottom of a vertical line. NMFS has also funded work on evaluating ropeless fishing using acoustical release devices and development of coded wire tags and other high-tech options for gear marking.

The New England Aquarium, through the Consortium for Wildlife Bycatch Reduction, is working on multiple whale protection techniques. The Consortium is funding research by Blue Water Concepts, a small engineering firm in Eliot, Maine, to simulate what might happen when a right whale encounters vertical lines, through the use of a life-size model of a right whale flipper [see sidebar]. Other studies include investigating whale vision underwater, including the possibility of a glowing buoy line and testing whether ropes that have greater stiffness or fish under greater tension may be effective for reducing entanglements.

Higgins acknowledges that experiments, such as ropeless lobster fishing, have produced snickers from lobstermen. But, he said, testing the principle of an idea is a way to get solid data on its validity, rather than using anecdotal information. “Ropeless fishing proved what industry had been saying, that it wasn’t a good idea,” Higgins said. “That’s what came out in the pilot test so it validates what fishermen were saying. Remember, the first generation of something always looks crazy. By the 20 or 30th generation it’s simpler and much more commonsense.”

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Figuring out how North Atlantic right whales become entangled in fixed gear is difficult. A researcher can’t just go out to sea, ensnarl a whale in an endline and see what happens. So researchers at UNH came up with an idea.

UNH ocean engineering professor Ken Baldwin and students constructed a 8-foot wide, approximately 2000-pound flipper, made of fiberglass and steel. Ben Brickett, founder of Blue Water Concepts, a marine engineering firm in Eliot, Maine, agreed to attach the flipper to the side of his boat. Using a sturdy vertical frame Brickett then tows the flipper into different lines at different speeds and videos the results underwater. “We are trying to answer the question of when the whale first encounters endlines, what happens?” he explained.

Photo by Ken Baldwin.

Brickett started out inventing devices to help fishermen ten years ago when a friend, who captained an offshore lobster boat, pointed out to him the looming problem of whale entanglements. “He said that there had to be a good way to get free if by any chance you got on a whale,” Brickett recalled. So Brickett came up with a hydraulic device called the Timed Tension Line Cutter. Once something pulled against an endline with sufficient strength for twenty minutes or so, the line cutter would cut the line free.
He has also created a trigger that will release a line in case a whale catches a buoy in its mouth. If the pull on the line is greater than 300 pounds or so, the trigger will spring the buoy free of the line.

Brickett has worked with the University of New Hampshire, the New England Aquarium, and the Maine Lobstermen’s Association to conduct tests on his inventions. “The whale business is pretty interesting. I think in the long run we want to keep fishermen able to fish and save a few whales as well,” Brickett said.