Regulators push for rope removal to save North Atlantic right whale

In a multinational drive to protect the North Atlantic right whale, fisheries along the east coasts of the Canada and the United States are being mandated, legislated, or volunteering to reduce rope use as much as possible.

The Canadian government has instituted steps that requires snow crab fishermen use less rope, use more easily breakable rope and report any lost gear as soon as possible. These conditions apply to all fishing in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. 

While Canada’s federal effort has been heavily on the snow crab fishery, the Prince Edward Island Fishermen’s Association (PEIFA) recently laid out its own plan to reduce potential entanglements and involvements with the endangered whales. 

No right whale has been found entangled in lobster gear, but nevertheless, the lobster fishermen in Area 24, along Prince Edward Islands’s North Shore, have agreed to voluntarily reduce what the gear they put in the water by at least 25 percent – setting their traps in bunches of six rather than a one trap set or smaller bunches. 

"We feel we're eliminating somewhere around 16,000 Styrofoam buoys out of the system and each of those buoys is responsible for 130 or 140 feet of rope, which go from the buoy down to the trap,” Francis Morrissey, of the Area 24 Lobster Advisory Board, said. “So we feel that by doing this, there's 16,000 less chances for marine mammals to get entangled."

South of the border, an op-ed in The Boston Globe by John K. Bullard, the retiring regional administrator for NOAA’s Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office, challenged the U.S. lobster industry to take the lead in heading off the extinction of the North Atlantc right whale.

“[The] lobster industry must assume a leadership role in solving a problem that it bears significant responsibility for creating. Entanglements occur in other fixed-gear fisheries, but the number of lobster trawls in the ocean swamps other fisheries,” Bullard wrote. “Lobstermen know the gear, the ocean and how to adapt. And they know best how to save the whales. They already have modified their gear to reduce their effects on large whales. They participate in gear research and continue to work with the take reduction teams at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But it is time to acknowledge that these efforts are not enough."

Bullard suggested expanded area closures, more stringent limits on the number of traps fished, and greater adoption of new technologies like ropeless gear and buoy lines that break more easily to reduce entanglements.

"In the United States, more than 25,000 miles of rope have been removed from the paths of whales. Along the Atlantic coast, 25,000 square miles of area have been closed to protect whales,” Bullard said. “[Fishermen] are in a tough spot. It's not fair, but life is not fair. They're already facing a number of challenges and they've done a lot. But the lobster industry inevitably has to play a role. I don't think they get to say they're going to take a pass and sit on the sidelines.”

His observations were not well-received by area lobstermen. Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association Executive Director Beth Casoni said the majority of whale deaths have occurred in Canadian waters. She said her members have cooperated with area closures and regulations and adopted gear modification in order to minimize their impact on the whales.

“We feel like we’re continually in the crosshairs,” Casoni said.

Photo courtesy of International Whaling Commission/


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