Fishermen offer their perspectives on whale entanglement

First published in the MLA Newsletter, March, 2011.

A group of 50 participants including fishermen, scientists, and disentanglement experts met in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, for a three-day workshop to combine their expertise on how large whales become entangled in fishing gear.

The object of the “reverse engineering workshop,” as it was referred to, was to take all the information available on whale entanglements and then work backwards to better understand what could be altered in the gear to prevent future entanglements. The group looked at case studies which provided basic information about the whale, the nature of the entanglement, field reports from the disentanglers who worked with whales, necropsy reports, gear summaries. Perhaps most importantly, the participants were able to examine the gear that was removed from the whales.

Tim Werner, director of the Consortium for Wildlife Bycatch Reduction based at the New England Aquarium, stated “this is the first time such a diverse group of experts has been brought together to try to understand how whales are getting entangled in fishing gear.”

On the first day of the workshop, participants were brought up to speed on each area of interest. Scientists presented data on the biology and behavior of right and humpback whale;  disentanglement team members presented their thoughts on entanglement based on removing fishing gear from large whales; a rope expert offered data on the various ropes removed from whales; a pathologist spoke about scientific findings drawn from entangled whales which died;  a gear specialist from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) gave an overview of the types of fishing gear removed from whales; a lobsterman spoke about how lobster and gillnet gear is rigged and fished. Participants also got to use a new computer game that allowed them to recreate a particular real-life entanglement scenario.

Six Maine lobstermen participated in the workshop. Kristan Porter, from Cutler, commented, “I definitely learned a lot about whales and the disentanglement process. But I really feel like the scientists learned a lot about fishing gear and appreciated having us there.”

The real work happened during days two and three when the group laid out and examined the gear removed from whales and reviewed the specific case studies. Fishermen were able to provide a tremendous amount of insight to the scientists and disentanglement team on the nature of the gear, how it was likely fished, and in many cases, where the gear came from, how old it was, and whether or not it was ghost gear or actively fished when the whale encountered it. The group discussed each case and formed a hypothesis about how the whale might have become entangled. The group also discussed how the entanglement could have been avoided or minimized with changes to the gear.

Examinations of the right whale case studies indicated that much of the gear implicated in these entanglements was not run-of-the-mill fishing gear. In one instance, bullet buoys had popped off their sticks and been replaced with a small trawl buoy on a swivel. This configuration became wrapped around the tail of a right whale, ultimately causing a lethal entanglement because the swivel, in combination with the trawl buoy, continually tightened around the tail. Other examples include longlines with “J” hooks, which are no longer used, and gear in which anchors and traps had been untied. This created ghost gear which floated at the surface. Much of the gear examined turned out to be gear that is no longer fished due to fishery management or large whale plan restrictions.

The case studies suggest that the majority of right whale entanglements begin around the mouth during feeding, even if the final observed entanglement doesn’t involve the mouth. Humpbacks are more prone to direct flipper and tail entanglements, in addition to mouth entanglements.

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