A right whale entangled in fishing gear off the Florida coast. Image by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission/NOAA via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

ME - U.S. charts course for adopting ropeless fishing to reduce whale deaths

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has published a report laying out a strategy to allow the use of “ropeless” or “on-demand” fishing gear off the U.S. East Coast with the goal of reducing entanglements of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.

  • The gear uses acoustic signals to locate and retrieve gear, reducing the amount of time that vertical lines are present in the water column, where they can ensnare right whales and other types of marine life.
  • Right whale numbers in the North Atlantic have declined precipitously in the past decade, as collisions with ships and entanglements have killed individuals and hampered the species’ ability to reproduce.
  • NOAA’s Ropeless Roadmap estimates that on-demand fishing gear can substantially diminish the risk to right whales, while allowing economically and culturally important fisheries of the northeastern U.S. to continue.

A spate of North Atlantic right whale deaths that began in 2017 shook the scientists who study the critically endangered species. That year, 17 whales died, and the losses prompted the U.S.’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to declare an “unusual mortality event” for them, which remains ongoing. In the years since, at least 54 have perished or sustained injuries so severe that they weren’t expected to live.

The culprits in most of these deaths, when possible to discern, have been ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear, in roughly equal measure. Together, these hazards have helped spark a decade-long decline in the population of North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis), from a post-whaling peak of nearly 500 animals in 2011 to just 336 today.

Guidelines already require large boats to slow down through right whale hangouts to minimize collisions, and the U.S. government is moving to broaden those restrictions. And government regulators, fishers, scientists and engineers in the U.S. and Canada are also trying to address the entanglement part of the equation. Especially since the whale deaths of 2017, key groups have increasingly thrown their support behind novel “ropeless” — more recently called “on-demand” — fishing gear that reduces the need for vertical ropes that attach lobster and fish traps on the ocean floor to buoys at the surface.

Graph showing whale population.
There has been a decade-long decline in the population of North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis), from a post-whaling peak of nearly 500 animals in 2011 to just 336 today. The dark blue line in the graph represents scientists’ best estimates for the population number, and the light blue area represents the range of uncertainty. Data from the 2018 NARWC Report Card. Image by Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life.

On July 29, NOAA released a draft Ropeless Roadmap, laying out the technological and regulatory hurdles facing the adoption of this new fishing gear. Scientists and fishers alike say the use of on-demand gear could give the North Atlantic right whale the reprieve from entanglement it needs to survive. The gear would also allow U.S. trap and pot fisheries, primarily for lobster but also for bottom-dwelling fish, to return to right whale hotspots they’ve been excluded from. These fisheries are the long-standing economic anchors of many communities along the eastern coasts of the U.S. and Canada.

The road map outlines a targeted approach to expanding the use of on-demand gear specifically aimed at allowing ropeless fishing in areas that are closed due to the risk the lines involved in traditional fishing pose to right whales. That would first happen under special permits allowing “limited access” for fishers to try out experimental gear, tentatively scheduled to launch in 2023, according to NOAA’s plans.

The end result might involve highly adaptive and real-time recommendations from scientists indicating places where only on-demand fishing should be allowed because the use of traditional gear with persistent vertical lines would be too dangerous for the few remaining right whales.

“The ropeless roadmap that we’ve written does not envision on-demand fishing for everyone everywhere,” Michael Asaro, a social scientist with NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, said during a presentation to the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team in August. The take reduction team works on plans to reduce the danger to whales from fishing gear and includes representatives from academia, conservation groups, federal regulatory bodies and the fishing industry.

“In short, we’re trying to provide tools for fishermen to fish in closed areas,” Henry Milliken, a research fishery biologist at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center, said at the presentation.

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