Untangling the Bleak Future of North Atlantic Right Whales

North Atlantic right whale
The survival of the North Atlantic right whale was the subject of hot debate at the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team meeting in Providence, Rhode Island.
Credit: Credit: NOAA Fisheries

Members of the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team met in Providence, Rhode Island this week. Their mission: to advise NOAA Fisheries on what measures to undertake to protect the North Atlantic right whale from entanglement in fishing gear.

The Take Reduction Team, or “TRT” for short, can be a tricky beast. Members represent a broad range of stakeholders, including scientists, environmental organizations, fishermen, and state and federal agencies. Stakeholder representation is always a good thing but, as the TRT is required to reach recommendations by consensus, it isn’t always an easy process.

Addressing the urgent task of prioritizing North Atlantic right whale conservation measures was no exception. Without immediate action, the North Atlantic right whale will become effectively extinct within only a few decades due to entanglement in fishing gear.

First, the TRT divided into small break-out groups and carefully evaluated a number of proposals prepared in advance of the meeting for their conservation benefit to right whales as well as their potential impacts on the fishing industry.

Elements of the proposals included expanding or creating new fishing closures, allowing experimental testing of new gear technologies within areas currently closed to fishing, modifying fishing ropes so they break more easily when a whale becomes entangled, improving gear marking requirements so fishing gear can be traced back to its fishery of origin, and, perhaps most importantly, measures to reduce the number of ropes in the water, including a transition to buoyless (also referred to as “ropeless”) fishing gear.

While the break-out group discussions proved productive, with groups weighing the various options both qualitatively and through a voting system, communication among TRT members began to break down once they returned to prioritizing measures as an entire group.

Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team
The Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team deliberates on potential solutions to North Atlantic right whale entanglement.
Credit: Credit: F. Kershaw

A transition to buoyless fishing gear was one highly contentious issue. This approach removes vertical fishing lines from the water thereby eliminating entanglement risk for all large whales, including the North Atlantic right whale. It is the most effective way to address right whale entanglement and is therefore viewed as paramount by many members of the environmental community, including NRDC.

Buoyless gear is currently in final research and development stages and pilot tests are underway both in the United States and Canada. Commercial deployment of buoyless gear will necessarily happen over a relatively longer timeframe than some other items under consideration (e.g., fishing closures), however, many voices on the TRT emphasized the importance of prioritizing the advancement of this technology in the immediate term. Meanwhile, the fishing community remained skeptical of a technology that is not yet commercially available.

Ropeless Fishing Methods
Potential buoyless fishing methods, including bottom-stowed rope (left), buoyancy traps (middle), and docking system (right).
Credit: Credit: Figure adapted from the Ropeless Consortium (www.ropeless.org)

Thankfully, the communication break-down was quickly acknowledged and, following some discussion of process, the TRT decided to again break into small groups and develop a draft workplan to present the following morning. Despite growing fatigue among the group, the TRT took on the task and deliberations continued well into the night.

Morning report-backs were very constructive and, while there was still significant disagreement among the group as to the list of priorities, the TRT’s recommendations enabled NOAA Fisheries to develop a work plan for future consideration by the group. The items included in this work plan will be voted on by the TRT at their next convening in March 2019.

Importantly, buoyless fishing gear remains on the table, which is a very positive step forward for the North Atlantic right whale. We now need to act to ensure it stays there.

A transition to buoyless gear, as well as the other work areas discussed during the meeting, will require significant economic investment. The ability of NOAA to advance protections for the North Atlantic right whale will be limited by available funds, so there is an urgent need to kindle federal funding streams to support this work.

The opportunity to secure targeted federal funds to support these efforts through the SAVE Right Whales Act of 2018 cannot be understated. If passed into law, the SAVE Act would provide a crucial five million dollars per year for the next ten years towards efforts to address right whale entanglement. It is incredibly important that we garner support for this bill so that an initial sustained funding stream is established to support this vitally important work.

You can take action by calling on your representatives to support the SAVE Right Whales Act of 2018. If your representative is already leading on this issue, you could show your appreciation by sending a quick note of thanks.

You can find your Congressional representative's contact information here.