PORTSMOUTH, N.H. – The persistent, ongoing problem of fishing lines and gear ensnarling whales and other marine mammals has been a major threat worldwide to their survival and recovery from life-threatening injuries for many years and without any definitive solution that is effective and practical for the fishing industry.
Case in point: 83 percent of the remaining 522 living - but highly endangered - North Atlantic right whales show scars from rope encounters, according to New England Aquarium research. minke, humpback, gray, sei, North Pacific right, and Southern right whales are also at grave risk of entanglements, frequently reported in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. With North Atlantic right whales, the level of serious entanglements is increasing over time.
About 40 leading whale scientists, fishermen, fisheries engineers, and government officials from all corners of the globe – Europe, Australia, Brazil, Mexico, Korea, Greenland, South Africa, Canada, and the U.S. – will gather at the Sheraton Portsmouth Harborside Hotel in Portsmouth, N.H., from May 23-26 to discuss practical solutions to the problem, review the current status of research on techniques to prevent whale entanglements, and focus on studies that have been carried out to date.
“We’ve got to get ahead of this very critical problem,” said Tim Werner, a New England Aquarium Senior Scientist and Director of the Consortium for Wildlife Bycatch Reduction who organized the workshop. “Cutting off ropes and disentangling whales is not the long term solution for these endangered animals when they encounter fixed fishing gear, aquaculture farms, and other entanglement hazards. The need to focus on prevention is long overdue.”
Over the past few years, fishermen and researchers have evaluated the potential of modified fishing techniques to prevent whale entanglements. Some governments have passed regulations to prevent their severity and incidence. Trials with fishermen, entrepreneurs, professors, and others on the front lines have looked to devise techniques that might help whales and other marine mammals avoid fishing lines, break fishing lines once entangled, or by other means for preventing entanglements. This workshop in Portsmouth will focus primarily on fixed fishing gear, such as gillnets, traps, and pots, and offshore aquaculture farms for shellfish and finfish which are currently expanding worldwide and also pose entanglement hazards in the lines and nets they use. Several researchers at the workshop will discuss:
- Whale vision and behavioral research to help whales avoid fishing lines underwater, in various colors, or by hearing acoustic deterrents
- The design and implementation of rope-less fishing gear in pot and gillnet fisheries
- The effectiveness of various fishing ropes that are either stiff and rigid, break easily, or are weak enough to free entangled whales
- Regional case studies about whale entanglement prevention efforts in Australia, Brazil, the eastern US, and beyond
Large whale entanglements are a problem for fishermen as well who face lower catches and lose costly gear such as when whales end up swimming off with them. Entanglement risks are also an obstacle in advancing offshore aquaculture farming work because regulators are concerned about the real risk these farms pose to marine animals. Likewise, the millions of dollars spent by state and federal agencies, universities, and other organizations to disentangle whales is a heroic undertaking that can save individual animals, but all agree that prevention is the ultimate solution, in particular for the most endangered species and populations.
The workshop called “Global Assessment of Large Whale Entanglement and Bycatch Reduction in Fishing and Aquaculture Gear” is sponsored by the Consortium for Wildlife Bycatch Reduction, the New England Aquarium, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the International Whaling Commission. The Consortium, based at the Aquarium, is a partnership of the University of New Hampshire, Duke University, Blue Water Fisherman’s Association, and the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.