WHOI Releases Report on Right Whale Threats, Solutions

Endangered North Atlantic right whales

WOODS HOLE – A new report has been released by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution which details the major threats facing critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.

The population for the species is estimated to be just over 400 and has suffered in recent years from high mortality rates with very few births.

The report indicates the whales are most threatened by fishing gear entanglements, vessel strikes and noise pollution.

WHOI Marine Biologist Michael Moore, who was a co-author of the report, says there has been a dramatic shift in the number of deaths caused by entanglements over the last decade.

Before 2010, 45 percent of right whale deaths were due to vessel strikes with 35 percent attributed to entanglements. Since 2010, entanglements have resulted in about 85 percent of right whale deaths.

“The entanglement rate has gone up and become more severe,” Moore said. “It used to be the animals would get entangled and scarred up and then be able to wiggle out of it or get disentangled, but now the entanglement mortality rate has also increased.”

Whale researchers are also concerned with the non-lethal effects of getting caught in fishing gear.

“Eighty-plus percent of the species show entanglement scars and 25 percent of them get new scars every year,” Moore said. “So the majority don’t die but they do have sub-lethal impact and really it comes down to stress of being entangled and pulling the rope through the water and traps too if they are involved.”

The report also explores efforts underway to develop solutions for addressing threats to the right whales.

Moore said the federal government has worked hard to reduce right whale deaths.

“We have had a significant reduction but there is still a problem with vessel collisions,” Moore said.

Moore said there has been a success with the education of mariners, the use of whale detection buoys and an international effort to make changes to shipping lanes.

“It’s not enough and there needs to be more of it on the vessel side,” Moore said.

Researchers are hoping for an expanded use of detection buoys and speed restriction zones.

Moore said the fishing industry has been “put through hell” when it comes to entanglements.

“They really have had to deal with a number of changes that have been made in good faith to reduce the entanglement risk but there have been some unforeseen consequences of that,” Moore said.

Researchers are working to re-engineer the existing fishing gear structure to make it more whale friendly.

“But rope is rope,” Moore said.

The quality of fishing rope has improved and is much stronger.

Moore said researchers are trying to introduce rope that is weaker to reduce entanglements.

“But to reduce the absolute risk we need to reduce the amount of rope in the water column and that is where the technology comes in,” he said.

Several prototypes of ropeless fishing gear are currently under development and some fishermen are partnering with scientists to test different types.

“If we can retrieve those traps without the rope in the water column that would be great and certainly the technology is there but the economics are not,” Moore said.

Scientists are working to cost effectively locate a trap acoustically and trigger a buoyancy device to bring up the rope or the trap with a bag.

“This is a huge challenge but it would be the end run for sure,” Moore said.

The full report can be retreived by clicking here.

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