Beyond collisions with ships, whales inhabiting the waters of North America are vulnerable to injury or death from another human-related threat: fishing gear entanglement.
Research conducted by the New England Aquarium and the Center for Coastal Studies showed that scars found on 83 percent of endangered North Atlantic right whales and about half of endangered humpbacks between Cape Cod and Nova Scotia indicated damaging encounters with ropes or nets.
In response, researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) have been looking for solutions. One option they believe has potential is “ropeless” fishing technology. While not literally eliminating ropes, the technology emphasizes doing away with the time-tested technique of running a line from the surface to the bottom (e.g. to mark a lobster trap for retrieval) and leaving the rope in place for long periods of time.
One “ropeless” alternative being studied leaves the rope and float on the seabed with the lobster trap. When an owner wants to retrieve the trap, a sonic or electronic signal releases the float to bring the rope to the surface, eliminating the constant clutter of lines that can confuse and endanger whales.
Michael Moore, a senior scientist at WHOI, said that when researchers first started working on human-related whale incidents in the 1990s, it was mostly a vessel strike problem.
“Today, it’s both vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglement, and the entanglement especially seems to (be) getting worse,” he said.