Maine Lobstermen’s Community Alliance: Finding ways to keep whales out of vertical lines

First published in Landings, June, 2013.

Scientists think that right whales are more aware of red and orange than other colors. NOAA photo.

Scientists think that right whales are more aware of red and orange than other colors. NOAA photo.

One of the major regulatory issues facing lobstermen in New England is the imminent promulgation by the National Fisheries Service of new rules regarding entanglement of endangered whales in lobster gear. Despite the now-mandatory use of sinking groundlines, North Atlantic right whales and other species are still becoming ensnared in vertical lines, incurring serious injuries and even dying from these encounters.

Scientists have identified fishing without vertical lines as the optimal solution to remove this entanglement risk from whales. They reasoned that no rope equals no entanglement risk. However, industry leaders have vehemently rejected this idea since it would be nearly impossible to execute a commercial fishery without connecting traps lying on the seafloor to a buoy on the surface.

The state of Maine has proposed to the National Marine Fisheries Service that Maine lobstermen could trawl up their gear to reduce vertical line risk. While trawling up will reduce the absolute number of vertical lines in the water, it won’t eliminate them from the ocean.

The Consortium for Wildlife Bycatch Reduction has conducted research to explore alternatives to simply taking vertical lines out of the water. In 2011 and 2012, Dr. Scott Kraus of the New England Aquarium in Boston tested a theory that right whales could see certain colored vertical lines in the water and thus avoid them.

Right whales have highly sensitive rods and cones in their eyes, which means they can see well in low intensity light. Analysis of a right whale eyeball indicated that they are particularly tuned to the wavelength of red light, which makes red-colored objects stand out as silhouettes from background light underwater.

Discovering a way to help right whales actually see vertical lines and avoid them would be a giant gain for both whales and lobstermen. NOAA photo.

Discovering a way to help right whales actually see vertical lines and avoid them would be a giant gain for both whales and lobstermen. NOAA photo.

To find out, researchers from the Aquarium placed colored PVC pipe (to mimic actual rope) in front of right whales feeding at the surface in Cape Cod Bay during the spring of 2011 and 2012 and then studied the whales to see if they changed behavior in response to the presence of the colored pipe. They used the distance at which the whales changed its behavior as an indication of when the whales actually noticed the colored pipe. Preliminary studies show that red and orange rope is seen by right whales at a further distance than ropes of other colors.

This summer, the Maine Lobstermen’s Community Alliance will work with lobstermen to field test these experimental ropes. MLCA is working with Brooks Trap Mill and Hyliner Rope to specially manufacture a combination of float and sink experimental red ropes for deployment as endlines.

A lobsterman from each of the seven zones will rig up ten endlines comprised of experimental red rope. They will fish these ropes as they normally would. These lobstermen will record the handling, fouling, and wear characteristics of the rope, with particular attention to any fading or change in color.

“It is always exciting when scientists come up with ideas that we can implement in the fishery. This research could lead to practical gear modifications that lobstermen could use to help reduce entanglement risk to right whales,” said Patrice McCarron, president of MLCA.