Can New Technology Save the North Atlantic Right Whale? Yes, But Only If It’s Used

The North Atlantic Right Whale is one of the most endangered animals on the planet, with only approximately 400 remaining, and more whales of the species dying each year than there are calves being born.  Earlier this week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a report on large whale entanglements, looking at data from 2007 to 2018, and found that entanglements are up significantly, with 80% of those involving fishing gear.  The most prevalent type of gear is rope lines attached to pots or traps on the seafloor with buoys at the surface — with lobsters being the most prominent of those. Emerging technologies that eliminate the ropes in the water column have been developed — the “catch” is getting fishers to use it.

Why This Matters: Fishing is a tough business with many challenges — the weather, climate change, and now COVID.  A promising technology like ropeless gear is much better for the whales and for the fishers — they would suffer far fewer gear losses.  The problem is that new systems like this one are a massive up-front expense beyond the reach of most fishers.  The hope is that the government can help lobster fishers to build back better after the pandemic with ropeless gear.

So Much Gear In the Water

Buoys mark the spot where lobster pots are located and off the coast of Maine and Massachusetts and they are everywhere. Indeed, according to the Conservation Law Foundation, millions of traps have been dropped along the 3,000-mile coast each one with a rope attached to it stretching from the bottom to the surface.  This is particularly bad for the whales because they feed by diving through this maze of ropes with their mouths wide open so they can take in the plankton they rely on as food.  But when they do, they often swim into a rope and when they try to shake it off, they may end up entangling themselves further –  twisting it around their bodies and sawing painfully into their skin – or worse drowning immediately.

What Congress Can Do

According to IFAW, the SAVE Right Whales Act would provide $5 million per year over ten years for conservation grants to develop, test, and implement innovative technologies that reduce entanglements in fishing gear and prevent vessel collisions. The bill would fund partnerships between states, nongovernmental organizations, and members of the fishing and shipping industries to find promising solutions that will protect Right Whales.

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