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Fishing-gear entanglements are the leading cause of death for the endangered whales. But new ropeless gear could change that

Captain Martin Noel and his crew have returned to the fishing grounds to retrieve their crab traps from the Gulf of St. Lawrence, about 140 kilometres off Shippagan, N.B. At the press of a button on Noel’s smartphone, an acoustic signal from a floating transducer pings a trap at the bottom of the ocean. That cues the tank to release a buoy, in turn, sending to the surface a line of traps from 300 feet below. Brimming with one of Canada’s most lucrative seafood catches, snow crab, these on-demand traps are pivotal to Canada’s plans to protect one of the world’s most critically endangered populations of large whales.

Captain Martin Noël, snow crab fisherman, in the wheel house of his vessel the Jean-Denis Martin. In a unique collaboration, fisherman are working directly with researchers, providing a platform for the right whale surveys of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.Nick Hawkins/The Globe and Mail

North Atlantic right whales are estimated at 340 animals, down from a recent peak of about 480 over decade ago, and dwindling compared to a population estimated to be at least ten times that 500 years ago. While right whales no longer face the threat of commercial whaling – the initial cause of the population’s plummet – human interactions pose the animal’s greatest existential threat.

The whales cover a massive geography, travelling from their spring and summer feeding grounds off northeastern Canada and the United States to winter calving grounds off southeastern U.S. Along the way, they face great risks from marine vessel strikes, ocean noise pollution and climate change, which is shifting the right whales’ preferred food source (small crustaceans called copepods) and usual geographic distribution (further north). But the leading cause of serious injury and death to right whales is entanglements in vertical-line gear – fixed-gear, marked by a floating buoy and anchored by vertical rope to a trap, pot or net.

While a rope is convenient for hauling a trap, thousands of vertical ropes create treacherous conditions for whales. Mr. Noel, who is also trained in whale surveillance and disentanglement, says ropes can cut into whales’ flesh, causing life-threatening infections, severing flippers and tails, and even cutting into bone.

A 2012 study that reviewed the scars on individual right whales over a 30-year period found that one-quarter of right whales are entangled in fishing gear from Canada and the U.S. each year, and 85 per cent are entangled at least once. More recently, a 2016 study suggests entanglement wounds have become more severe, possibly because of the use of stronger fishing lines.

These illustrations demonstrate the difference between standard lobster trapping gear (above) versus ropeless gear (below).The Globe and Mail

“The on-demand technology helps us coexist with the whales,” says Mr. Noel, who has tested the new gear for the last four of his nearly 30-year fishing career.

Ropeless or on-demand gear uses no fixed vertical ropes or lines, which removes the key threat to the whales, while allowing fishers to do their job. But since the gear is undergoing testing and not yet widely adopted, most of the fishing gear in the water still poses a threat to North Atlantic right whales.

In early January, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA) reported its first North Atlantic right whale entanglement sighting of the year. A four-year-old female, spotted off North Carolina on Jan. 8, 2023, is one of fewer than 80 females left for the species, the 94th right whale documented in the “North Atlantic Right Whale Unusual Mortality Event,” and the 22nd serious injury case.

NOAA first opened the Unusual Mortality Event investigation – which is prompted by a significant die-off of a marine mammal population and requires an immediate response – in 2017, when 17 North Atlantic right whales turned up dead, including 12 in Canadian waters and five in American waters. The latest entanglement and death (a male calf was documented dead, without its mother, on Jan. 7 near Morehead City, N.C.) continues that open investigation, putting a damper on the good news of four calf sightings at the end of December.

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In Canada, officials are taking these threats seriously, says Moira Brown, a whale researcher with the Canadian Whale Institute in Campobello Island, N.B. “Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Transport Canada, man, they sat up and took notice. Once the numbers started piling up, a huge slowdown for ships was put in place, fisheries were shut down early or not allowed to open. Everybody was seriously drinking from a firehose, because there hadn’t been this many whales lost in a short period of time, since the days of whaling hundreds of years ago.”

A lobster fisherman prepares to set a trap in the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick. The ropes from trap and pot fisheries pose a serious threat to North Atlantic right whales. Nick Hawkins/The Globe and Mail
Fishing ropes wrapped around its head and mouth damage the baleen of a North Atlantic right whale in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Fishing gear entanglement is a leading cause of death in North Atlantic right whales. Nick Hawkins/The Globe and Mail

Since 2018, Fisheries and Oceans Canada has implemented extensive measures to reduce right whale entanglement risk and impacts – undertaking closings in the Gulf of St. Lawrence snow crab fishery in 2018, later expanded to all snow crab and other fixed-gear fisheries; funding and permitting of ropeless gears; and funding whale disentanglement efforts.

Canada has also deployed broad mitigation approaches, from increasing whale surveillance via aircraft, drones, underwater gliders and acoustic devices; to reporting of lost fishing gear and marine mammal interactions by fishermen; and requiring fishermen to label their gear (so the gear is traceable in the event of a future whale entanglement). Meanwhile, Transport Canada, mandates slow-down zones for marine vessels.

But with fishing-gear entanglements as the leading cause of death for the imperilled whales, Canada must ramp up efforts to make best practice more common, says Kim Elmslie, the campaign director for the ocean-based charity, Oceana Canada.

Ropeless gear eliminates the vertical lines involved in the use of standard roped crab pots (pictured) which have been known to imperil whales.Alden Gaudet/The Globe and Mail

“Fisheries and Oceans Canada needs to continue funding the use of ropeless gear and technologies that remove vertical lines from the water column and implement permanent protection measures,” Ms. Elmslie says.

Moving to on-demand gear is even more popant as the U.S. – Canada’s top buyer of snow crab and Atlantic lobster, which are also Canada’s highest-earning seafood exports – undertakes its review of imported seafood. The aim is to ensure the countries it imports from are relying on fishing practices that are in keeping with U.S. federal marine mammal protections.

New import provisions to the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), introduced in 2017, specifically ban the import of fish caught with commercial fishing technology that kills or seriously injures marine mammals in excess of U.S. standards.

Researchers perform a necropsy on a dead North Atlantic right whale on a beach in Cape Breton. The whale, known as "Punctuation" to researchers, was a large female who scientists had been tracking since she was first spotted in 1981. Findings of the necropsy revealed the whales fatal injuries were due to "sharp trauma," consistent with a vessel strike.Nick Hawkins/The Globe and Mail

Canada is among the more than 130 countries to have submitted its required reporting to NOAA fisheries to demonstrate compliance with that provision, which formally took effect in December, 2022. But in late November, the U.S. federal department advised, with so many reports to review, countries should, “expect to receive their Comparability Finding by December 31, 2023 for their commercial fishing operations in order to export fish and fish products to the United States.”

Adam Burns, the acting assistant deputy minister of fisheries and harbour management at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, said measures in this country to protect North Atlantic right whales are “world-class.”

“We’re really proud of the measures that we have in place, and we’ll continue to work with our counterparts in the U.S. administration to help them understand the measures that we have in place,” he said.

Since Canadian measures took effect in 2018, there have been no North Atlantic right whale mortalities linked with Canadian fisheries, Dr. Brown said, adding, “Canada has done more in five years to protect North Atlantic right whales in Canadian waters than the U.S. has managed to do in 25.”

So far, Canadian progress has not distinguished itself, at least in the eyes of Seafood Watch – a California-based Monterey Bay Aquarium program that evaluates the sustainability of seafood in the U.S. marketplace.

In September 2022, the program assigned red ratings to 14 fixed-gear fisheries, including three in Canada and 11 in the U.S. In its assessment, Seafood Watch cites a July 2022 U.S. District Court ruling that found vertical-line fisheries like those used in crab traps, lobster pots and gillnets, violate the U.S. Endangered Species Act, which protects species in danger of extinction, and the MMPA, which aims to reduce the incidental kill or serious injury of marine mammals during commercial fishing.

The Ocean Tracking Network (OTN) deploys an autonomous glider off the coast of Halifax. The gliders provide oceanographic data and record the presence of right whales by listening for their vocalizations. This information helps researchers to understand changing oceanic conditions and whale behaviours. Nick Hawkins/The Globe and Mail

“If you put rope in the water column, you are probably threatening whales. That’s something to be very concerned about and needs to be addressed, but it is a shortcoming to lump all these fisheries together, especially because fisheries management efforts in Canada have been stellar in recent years, by far surpassing what’s going on in the U.S.” says Sean Brillant, senior conservation biologist at the Canadian Wildlife Federation, which helps fishermen adopt whale-safe technology through its gear-lending program.

The red ratings signal to buyers to avoid seafood posing high risks to harming wildlife. Canadian Atlantic lobster, rock crab and snow crab are among the red-listed seafoods. Home meal-kit retail giant HelloFresh, headquartered in Berlin and the largest meal-kit distributor in the U.S., and Blue Apron, headquartered in New York City, have already taken Atlantic lobster, which is caught using vertical-line pots, off their menus. Canadian seafood sales have seemingly not taken a financial hit since the bans took effect last September, but it doesn’t mean they won’t.

“I think we need to support the crab fishermen and lobster fishermen that are trying to make a difference for right whales and other species as well trying to tackle the entanglement problem. The last thing we want to do is not have a market for their product if they’re really trying hard to fix things. My personal opinion is we need a buy-cott, not a boycott,” Dr. Brown says.

Mackie Greene of the Campobello Whale Rescue team throws a grapple in an attempt to disentangle a whale from fishing gear.Nick Hawkins/The Globe and Mail

While Seafood Watch cites Canadian-led progress in its 2022 assessment, their report argues, “Few analyses have been conducted on the effectiveness of these measures to reduce fishing mortality to below PBR.” Potential Biological Removal (PBR) is the maximum number of animals, not including natural mortalities, that may be removed from a marine mammal stock while allowing that stock to reach or maintain its optimal sustainable population. NOAA has set the PBR for North Atlantic right whales to 0.8, meaning zero mortalities due to entanglements are acceptable.

Meanwhile, the Seafood Watch assessment cites, “five mortalities in 2019 for which the cause of death was not determined” and a 2021 North Atlantic right whale entanglement causing serious injury and increasing the risk of death in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The devil is in the details, said Dr. Brillant, who says the assessment glossed over the fact that during fishing season, Canadians can legally use vertical-line gear so long as no endangered whales are present. Doing so is safer for crews, as roped gear entails hauling one trap at a time, whereas ropeless gear requires hauling a succession of 10 traps – all attached to an 11th device containing the on-demand buoy system.

Insofar as the U.S. comparability analysis, another important detail is that the U.S. government has stated an aim of reaching a 90-per-cent reduction in risk to North Atlantic right whales through its new regulations, which are in development, led by NOAA in partnership with states and industry. Canada has no such target.

“Do we need to get down by 90 per cent? Yes, at least. In fact, I feel quite confident that anything less than that is not going to accomplish the conservation nor the survival of this species. I suspect Canadian government officials are keeping in mind that the U.S. is striving for a 90-per-cent risk reduction and it’s probably going to look good if Canada essentially strives for about the same amount,” said Dr. Brillant.

But DFO is not committing to targets.

“I think what I would say is that we’re focused on continuing the collaboration with the fishing industry and taking an evidence-based approach to putting in place measures that maximize protection for North Atlantic right whales and that’s the approach that we’re going to continue,” Mr. Burns said.

A North Atlantic right whale known as "Lemur" had its tail severely damaged as the result of a ship strike in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.Nick Hawkins/The Globe and Mail

Meanwhile, as the race to retrofit and scale on-demand fishing gear continues, developers are moving rapidly to address issues of interoperability, already prototyping gear-mapping technology, so fishermen can avoid setting gear over one another’s and DFO fisheries managers can regulate the gear in the water.

“Never would I have ever thought I would put more time into working for a solution for the whales than actually fishing,” Mr. Noel said. “We’ve come a long way in five years, but we can’t afford to stall progress. On-demand gear is a best practice, but it’s not yet widespread practice.”

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