“The line comes out of the mouth here, and it’s hard to see, but it's also coming out of the right side of the mouth and it’s knotted here and then travels back behind the whale, several body lengths,” Heather Pettis, a research scientist at the New England Aquarium, said. She is explaining a photo of an endangered North Atlantic Right Whale tangled in a fishing rope.
Pettis has been documenting whale injuries since the start of the century.
“From an ecological standpoint, large whales are incredibly important to the ecosystem,” Pettis said. “Right Whales are in the predicament they’re in solely because of human activities. So I feel like we have a moral obligation to protect them from going extinct.”
Often, whales can get entangled in fishing rope that is attached to both a buoy on the water surface and a trap on the seafloor. Pettis said even if the whale can untangle itself, generally, they leave scars.
“People don’t see it, so it’s hard to wrap your head around the fact that it’s happening,” she said.
Statistics from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show less than 350 endangered North Atlantic Right Whales still exist. The new regulations that went into effect for fishermen on May 1 aim to help those numbers increase.
“There are a couple parts to the final ruling,” Pettis said. “There are some closures included in the ruling.”
Besides closures – which dictate specific areas in federal and state waters where fishermen cannot fish during certain times of the year due to whale activity – it also includes the need for using weak rope that breaks on contact.
“What those weak links are aimed to do is reduce the chance that a whale will wrap and not be able to break free and also if a whale is able to break free, that it does so more quickly and without serious injury,” she said.
Fishermen also have to mark gear so if it does get wrapped around a whale, it can be identified.
“This is actually weak rope, but I actually have to have a one-foot green mark on it,” Rob Martin said. Martin has been lobster fishing in these waters off Cape Cod in Massachusetts for more than four decades.
He said changing the rope and following the new regulations takes time.
“It’s a lot of man-hours to do,” Martin said.
“A lot of people are upset,” he said. “Everybody hates change. I hate change, but you’ve got to adapt if you want to stay fishing.”
Martin said he supports these extra steps if it means he can keep running his business. More changes could come in the future from federal or state entities to make the waters safe enough for whales if the current regulations don’t mean certain standards.
“It has to get up to 90% risk reduction and I think we’re only at 60%,” he said.
Not everyone agrees with the rules. The Maine Lobstermen's Association filed a suit against the federal government over the conservation plan last year. On their website, it states "burdensome federal regulations threaten to end Maine's lobster industry".
Pettis said these new regulations are just the beginning. Researchers will be watching to see how entanglements and injuries play out over time.
“There are a lot of eyes with what happens with the North Atlantic Right Whale population,” she said. “This ruling sets forward some ideas of how to mitigate entanglement risk and reduce mortality and vessel strike that are applicable to other whale species.”