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Right Whales: Saving The Iconic Endangered Species, a Q&A

Jan 14, 2016 02:12 PM EST

North Atlantic Right Whales migrate along the East Coast each year, and they are listed as endangered throughout their range. They number at around 500 in the wild, by some estimates. Throughout that range from Eastern Canada, past Cape Cod and the Chesapeake, to their calving grounds in Georgia and Florida, these often 50-feet-long creatures are vulnerable to being hit by ships, struck by high-speed watercraft, or entangled in fishing gear to die a slow, painful death.

Several projects in the United States and Canada are working to change that. One is the Right Whale Research Program at Boston's New England Aquarium, which works in collaboration with Cape Cod's Center for Coastal Studies and others within the Consortium for Wildlife Bycatch Reduction to address entanglements. Bycatch, as you might know, describes things besides fish that are caught in fishing ropes and nets.

Recently, Nature World News talked with Amy Knowlton, a research scientist at the New England Aquarium and lead author on a recent study about whale-entanglement. In that research, scientists looked at ropes from live and dead whales caught in fishing gear from 1994 to 2010. They found that if ropes with "reduced breaking strength (RBS)" can be manufactured and used, many whales could be saved each year. Alternatively, in some areas where the RBS ropes aren't feasible to use rope-less fishing should be considered, they concluded.

1. What is the goal of the Right Whale Research Program?

One of the main goals is preventing the right whale from going extinct as the result of human activity.

2. In your study, you mention that North Atlantic Right Whales have had increasing levels of severe injuries over the past three decades, possibly because rope strength increased in the mid-1990s with improved manufacturing techniques. They have the same diameter but are tougher to break. Have you seen any regions already beginning to use ropes that break at the weights advised in the study, or simply at lighter-than-standard weights?

Not yet. A rope at the diameter that fishermen typically use atthe lower strength we have recommended isn't necessarily available. Our goal in the coming year is to work with rope manufacturers to create this reduced breaking strength rope so it is the same diameter but with better degradation resistance.
2.What is the general reaction of the fishing industry to this study?

The fishermen we've talked to so far, mostly in Massachusetts and Maine, have been supportive of the work and interested in the science. Right now I'm trying to collect data about the types of strains that are put on ropes in fishing soso we can assess the water depths and gear configurations where fishing could still be conducted effectively. There are possible depths of water where you wouldn't be able to use of the lower breaking strength rope. Fishermen want to feel that they're not going to lose their gear all the time, and I understand that. We don't want that to happen either.

The fishing industry often has really good ideas that can help to solve the problem. For instance, some fishermen have created lower breaking strength sleeves like "Chinese finger-locks" that the two ends of a rope can go into to create a weak link allowing the rope to disconnect and release the animal at a certain strain. But we're still exploring how effective those will be in general.

3. What is your next step?

We're working on trying to get rope manufacturers to create the type of rope that will break at lower strengths but have better degradation resistance. Our goal in coming years is to get these ropes manufactured and tested by fishermen. After that, we'd focus on how to get these ropes distributed to fishermen. If we can get them used broadly by fishermen, then we can evaluate whether there are reductions in the severe injuries that we've been seeing on these animals, which are really quite prevalent. It will take some years.

4. What else is changing?

With climate change, right whales are shifting their movements considerably. While we've succeeded in regulating shipping speeds within 20 miles of shore during right whale migration periods along the whales' known routes, relocating shipping lanes in high use areas, and creating Areas To Be Avoided by ships based on historical right whale distributions, the new areas where the right whales are going now may need to be managed too. For instance, more right whales have been seen in recent years in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada, an area with a lot of shipping and fishing activity and where no management measures are presently in place.

5. What is a challenge of conducting whale research?

Trying to understand what's happening for a whale population is quite challenging: It's different from spending time near a terrestrial population and learning from them. With whales, you catch a glimpse of them on a given day and take photos to keep track of them and document their injuries. With over 30 years of data collection on this species, we have been able to detect patterns that have helped us to recommend scientifically-based policy changes. As they shift into new areas, we need to continue to remain vigilant and monitor human impacts and to help make those areas safe.

With the long-term research that has been conducted on right whales as well as humpbacks along the eastern seaboard of the U.S. and Canada we have learned a tremendous amount about how these whales have been impacted and what can be done to help them. We hope these findings and recommendations can help other countries who are trying to address similar impacts to whales in their waters.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

-Follow Catherine on Twitter @TreesWhales

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