Reducing Rope Strength Could Reduce Entanglement Severity

With vessel strikes to right whales on the decline since numerous mitigation measures were put into place, the current number one threat to right whales is entanglement in fishing gear. The majority of the entangling fishing gear involves pot or trap gear (for bottom dwellers like lobster and crab, or certain fish species) and gillnet (for groundfish like cod and haddock, and other fish species). Nearly 83% of the North Atlantic right whale population shows evidence of having been entangled in fishing gear at least once, with 59% being entangled more than once (some whales have experienced over five entanglement events!). Entanglement impacts cover a wide range: from residual scarring only (typically minor), to moderate and severe levels, the latter of which includes individuals with attached gear that can lead to reduced health, infection, severing of body parts, starvation... along with what must be an incredible amount of suffering. Unfortunately, in recent years entanglement cases categorized as severe have become more frequent.

Right whale "Bridle" (Catalog #3311) suffered a severe entanglement during which this line sliced through and under the callosity. Despite disentanglement attempts, Bridle most likely died from causes related to his injuries. Photo: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission under NOAA Permit # 932-1905/MA 009526.

Steps have been taken to address this chronic problem, such as the creation of seasonal fishing closures, reduction of the number of vertical lines in the water and use of sinking groundline, but it's still too early to determine how these measures have helped. Researchers from the New England Aquarium (Amy Knowlton, Scott Kraus, Tim Werner) and Center for Coastal Studies (Jooke Robbins, Scott Landry), and rope engineer Henry McKenna turned to examining the ropes recovered from disentangled whales or from those found dead and entangled to see if trends would emerge to shape the story of why these entanglements have increased. That's right- the National Marine Fisheries Service maintains a storage facility that houses the ropes pulled off of entangled whales! This is just one of the reasons why disentanglement by professional teams is so important- they know they need to recover the gear to help advance our knowledge and understanding of the entanglement issue.

"Ruffian" (Catalog #3530), photographed with numerous raw wounds all over his body after a severe entanglement. Photo: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, taken under NOAA Permit #932-1489-09.

Amy Knowlton and her colleagues took these recovered ropes (132 different ropes from 70 entanglements of humpback, right, fin and minke whales) and analyzed them to determine polymer type, diameter, and breaking strength. They then combined this information with whatever was known about the individual whales with regards to entanglement configuration, severity of the injury, and life history to get a bigger picture of what is going on. Their newly published paper "Effects of fishing rope strength on the severity of large whale entanglements" thoroughly explains all of this (and includes a download of supporting information such as an example of a case study and how these ropes were analyzed), but in a nutshell here's what they found:

  • Injury severity has increased over the years, and is related to rope strength.
  • Weaker species (e.g.: minke) and younger whales are less likely to successfully break free of stronger rope, resulting in complex and potentially lethal entanglements.
  • Reduced breaking strength rope (breaks at 1700 pounds or 7.56 kN) could reduce the probability of mortality by 72%.
  • Forces applied during normal fishing operations in many areas are lower than 1700 lbs, so presently used fishing line is stronger than what the majority of fisheries need.
The tight line on this whale (Catalog #3279) cuts through the blowholes and into the head, while likely also wrapping through the mouth as the line is seen exiting the top of the lip. The whale's ability to breathe was clearly inhibited. Photo: Canadian Whale Institute/ New England Aquarium.

Rope manufacturing evolved in the 1950's from natural fibers to synthetic, and in the mid 1990's another leap was made in production by using methods which blend different plastics together (creating copolymer ropes like Polysteel and similar brands) which are widely used today. In a similar shift, pot traps made of wood were replaced with wire traps by the early 1980's, which allowed for an expansion of fishing effort both temporally and spatially. Amy Knowlton and her coauthors believe this shift into heavier, stronger gear is responsible for the increased severity of large whale entanglements. The next focus is to work with rope manufacturers to develop ropes that have reduced strength but better degradation resistance, and also to evaluate where such ropes could be used effectively by fishers. Stay tuned for further updates on this important work!

"Bayla" (Catalog #3911) in extremely poor health while severely entangled. She was found dead at sea a couple of weeks after this photo was taken. Photo: Georgia Department of Natural Resources, taken under NOAA Permit #932-1905.

This new paper has received interest from the media, so here are a few links to articles about the research and interviews with Amy:

"Fishing line causing lethal entanglements for right whales," CBC News
"Right Whales: Saving the iconic endangered species, a Q&A," Nature World News
"How To Stop Whales Getting Entangled In Our Nets," IFL Science!
"New Publication On Baleen Whale Bycatch," Consortium for Wildlife Bycatch Reduction

"Gannet" (Catalog #2660) displays severe wounds to her tail stock and flukes after an entanglement. Hopefully injuries like this can become a thing of the past. Photo: New England Aquarium


Exciting Right Whale Sponsorship News!

For more than 20 years, over 2,300 people have supported our research by participating in the Right Whale Sponsorship Program. As sponsors, they have learned about the plight of this endangered species and our 35 years of research to protect them. The Right Whale Sponsorship Program provides vital support for our work and we are so grateful to all who have taken part in the Program over the years. We have some EXCITING Sponsorship news to share and we hope that in this upcoming holiday season you will consider sponsoring a right whale and/or purchasing one of our great right whale-themed gifts!

UPDATED SPONSORSHIP MATERIALS! All of our sponsorship packages have been updated with a fresh new look and materials! Full color informational booklets, the hardcover book “Disappearing Giants”, a one-year subscription to our biannual newsletter, Right Whale Research News, stickers, and a coupon to the New England Aquarium Gift shop are included in all sponsorships. And don’t forget: Each sponsorship is tax deductible and directly supports our Right Whale Research Program!

NEW WHALES!  There are three new whales available to sponsor: Aphrodite, Manta and Gemini! Each whale has a fascinating history and we are eager to share their stories with you! Meet all the Sponsorship whales here.

New Sponsorship Whale, Gemini, one of the oldest whales in the population! Photo: Yan Guilbault/NEAq

CALLING ALL TEACHERS! We now offer a Classroom Sponsorship that's perfect for classroom or service projects. Along with all the other sponsorship materials, the Classroom Sponsorship also includes a single plush right whale for the classroom, stickers for up to 30 students and access to the right whale-themed Smithsonian in your Classroom lesson plans "The Tale of the Whale"

Learn more about our Sponsorship program and the different support levels available here.

RIGHT WHALE THEMED GIFT IDEAS! In addition to sponsoring a right whale, you can shop in support of Right Whale Research by purchasing T-shirts, books or the super soft right whale plushy. Net proceeds go directly toward the annual costs of field research, data analysis and professional collaborations. These all make wonderful gifts for any occasion and shipping is FREE!

Thanks again to our sponsors for all your support over the years!!

~ Marilyn and Heather 


#25: BOF 2015 By The Numbers

2 months
21 team staff and volunteers
4 survey boats (Nereid, Callisto, Shelagh, Jupiter)
3 survey areas (Bay of Fundy [BOF], Roseway Basin [RB], Gulf of St. Lawrence [GSL])
35 survey days total
3073 nautical miles on survey total
2 individual whales photographed by GSL team
8 individual whales photographed by BOF team
14 individual whales photographed by RB team
17 known North Atlantic right whale calves born in 2015
1 mom/calf pair sighted (Calvin!)
1 entangled whale seen
1 whale with severe injury seen (chopped fluke)
0 poop samples
0 biopsy samples
1 stranded basking shark
1 orca (Old Thom)
3 years out of 3 that Kelsey has missed Old Thom sightings
3 separate events of fishing rope caught around Nereid propeller
1 unfinished dock
1 massive fog monster
36 field seasons in BOF completed!

"But... how do we get to shore?"


#24: Last days on Roseway Basin and an exciting surprise!

After a terrific day with right whales on September 13, we retreated to the wharf at Sable Fish Packers on Cape Sable Island, NS, to nestle among the fishing boats and wait out another couple of days of bad weather. By Monday, the weather had moved through, finally clearing on land, however the fog lingered offshore.

Fog clearing at Cape Sable Island. Photo: Moira Brown

Nestled among the fishing boats. Photo: Moira Brown

On Tuesday morning, September 16th, we headed out at first light, full of anticipation of more right whales. But they had vanished from where we had seen them the week before; it has been like surveying for melting ice cubes this year! Nonetheless, we forged ever hopeful surveying the Roseway Basin critical habitat traveling on north-south tracklines from east to west. We spotted right whale flukes in the waning minutes of daylight, and stopped there for the night on the western corner of the critical habitat. Our sleep was interrupted when the currents took us east to within 2 nm of one fishing boat and with others close by. The Captain was raised by the team on watch to steer us to the west away from other boats.

Sunrise on Wednesday was clear and calm and gave us hope for one last good day. Only 10 nm south of the end of our last trackline, we decided to add some additional east to west lines in case the right whale in the distance the afternoon before was still in the area. We surveyed to the east and ran into patches of fog (again); traveled north a couple of miles and then back to the west, the fog bank persisting to the south.  Upon reaching our starting point for the day, we turned north with a plan to survey all the way to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, where we would spend the night. The team’s mood was quiet—we had been hopeful of more right whale sightings on this last day.  

Conditions had become so calm it was hard to detect whale blows. The team on watch radioed down to the Captain to slow the boat—flukes had been seen. Meanwhile a team member on the deck getting ready to replace the team on watch called to the captain – there’s a right whale right beside the boat! Sure enough, a small animal was just rolling around at the surface. We swung the boat around, and starting shooting photographs and video footage. Before long a much larger whale surfaced and the broad white scar on her right flank sealed the id: it was Calvin (Catalog #2223)! The smaller whale was her calf!

Calvin's large scar helps identify her. Her calf swims beside her in the background. Photo: Kelsey Howe

It was September 17th, 23 years and 12 days after Calvin’s mother Delilah had been killed by a ship in the Bay of Fundy. Calvin was less than a year old at the time and survived early weaning and then later two entanglements in 1994 and 2000; the latter one serious enough to require intervention by whale rescue teams. This sighting in 2015 was with her third calf and was remarkable in many ways.

Hanging out on Roseway Basin. Photo: Marianna Hagbloom

Mother calf pairs are quite unusual on Roseway Basin; only seven have been recorded since 1985 prior to Calvin and her calf this year. It was the second sighting of Calvin and her calf this summer. The previous one occurred on August 20 near Pomquet Beach near Antigonish, NS, in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, when they were photographed by biologists studying piping plovers.

The curious, playful calf. Photo: Marianna Hagbloom

Calvin has become an icon for the struggles of the North Atlantic right whale from the impacts of vessel strike and gear entanglement and is yet again an icon for a trend of changes in patterns of habitat use over the last four years. The New England Aquarium team and the public values her so much, we made Calvin one of the whales available to sponsor through our sponsorship program!

Click "play" to experience what it was like to be near this pair! (viewable in HD)

Following our return from the survey, I traveled to Saint John, NB, and stood below the skeleton of Delilah to speak to a reporter about our sighting of Calvin, quite an emotional location to tell a story we never dreamed of in 1992—that the little calf would survive and go on to be now a three-time mother.

Taken almost 23 years after Calvin's mother was killed by a ship strike, Calvin has now birthed three calves. Photo: Kelsey Howe 

We had one more right whale sighting at the end of this day, bringing the total of right whales seen on our second Roseway trip to 17! Our surveys are over for this year, and the winter will be spent pouring over the photos and data, and planning for 2016.  The research team on the Shelagh would like to extend our gratitude to our Captain Joe Howlett for making all of our trips safe, fun and successful!

Captain Joe gets a closer look at Calvin and her calf! Photo: Marianna Hagbloom

- Moe


#23: The Rain Never Bothered Us Anyway (Roseway Basin)

After a two-day Shelburne respite from the open ocean, we ventured back out onto Roseway Basin on September 12th.  We surveyed the eastern side and it was very gray and overcast the whole day, without much to see.  Then, on the final watch of the day, Moe and Marianna spotted a whale blow and a shallow fluking dive: our first right whale on Roseway Basin this season!  It was a pretty big deal on the boat and immediately lifted the mood. Unfortunately the sun was setting when we first found the whale, so we lost daylight very quickly and eventually had to let the whale go without having shot the perfect photo series.  The important thing is that we were later able to identify the whale as Catalog #2350, an at least 24 year-old male last sighted in Cape Cod Bay in 2013.

Our very first right whale on Roseway Basin: #2350.  Photo credit: Kelsey Howe
Encouraged by our small victory, the following day found us starting in the same place where we left off the previous night, in hopes that our single sighting was not a fluke (no pun intended) and that more whales might be in the vicinity. And FINALLY some good luck kicked in and we found right whales almost immediately.  Our first right whale of the day was identified on the spot by Marianna as Catalog #2201, a 23 year-old male, who we documented last year in August in the Bay of Fundy (BOF). This whale is the last known calf of Fermata, #1001, the very first North Atlantic right whale to be cataloged. Fermata was last seen in BOF in 1992 with her fifth calf (#2201).  A week later, #2201 was seen without his mom, and sadly she has not been seen since.

The right flank scar helped identify this whale as #2201.  Photo credit: Marianna Hagbloom
As we were working Catalog #2201, we saw multiple blows and right whale flukes nearby. Unfortunately, squalls were lining up on the horizon and our sea state dipped from manageable to sloppy. But after a slow season hampered by bad weather, we were not going to be distracted or intimidated from doing what we came there to do. We briefly photographed #3191 (a male at least 15 years of age) before another whale popped up with a severe fluke injury.

The horrifying remnants of this whale's fluke.  Photo credit: Hilary Moors-Murphy
It was right around this time that the first rain storm hit. But now, with only two photos of a probably lethally wounded whale, we would not be deterred! The key is to stick the camera inside your float coat to stay dry and then whip it out just in time to photograph a surfacing whale. Yet no matter how hard we tried, we ended up losing the injured whale in the rain. We hope that we'll be able to identify this individual based on small scars on the peduncle, and that this whale is seen again so that the injury and body condition of the animal can be better documented.

The squall passed soon enough and there were other whales in the area to photograph: Catalog #2018 (Dalmation), #3701 (Eros), #2790, and #3934.  Dalmation, named for the white spots on his lower jaw, is a 25 year-old male seen earlier this year off southern New England.  Eros, an 8 year-old male, seen last year out on Roseway Basin, is named after the mythological son of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, the namesake of his mother #1701.

Eros surfacing close to the boat.  Photo credit: Kelsey Howe
Catalog #2790 is a calving female at least 18 years old, who was last seen in the southeast with a calf this past winter. It was slightly unsettling for us to not see or photograph her calf (since most calves are not fully weaned by this time), but it should be taken into account that our sighting of her was less than one minute long and the weather conditions were poor.

Recent mother, #2790, seen briefly for a single surfacing.  Photo credit: Hilary Moors-Murphy
Catalog #3934, a 6 year-old female, is the eighth of nine calves born to #1334. Her mother has a very interesting sighting history: with the exception of three sightings, #1334 only frequents the southeast calving grounds every few years when she gives birth to a calf.  This sighting history implies that she must go somewhere other than the Gulf of Maine region to feed.  However, it is interesting to note that her daughter has a more robust sighting history, including a handful of sightings in Cape Cod Bay and Roseway Basin.

#3934 raising her flukes high for a dive.  Photo credit: Kelsey Howe
All in all, we photographed a total of eight individual right whales that morning amidst several rain squalls and a rough sea state, but we all agreed that there were a couple more whales in the area that remained unphotographed.

Later on in the afternoon, we had two more right whales, both old males and familiar faces to this project. Catalog #1306 (Velcro) is an at least 32 year-old male with an extensive Bay of Fundy sighting history, and #1327 (Scoop) is an older male (at least 33 years old) seen last year in BOF.

Scoop (top) and Velcro photographed together.  Photo credit: Jen Gatzke

Scoop, lifting his ventral, left fluke lobe. The blunt, white fluke tip is a matchable feature. Photo credit: Kelsey Howe
As we were photographing these two whales, the fog rolled in. However, after reviewing photos inside the wheelhouse of the Shelagh, we noticed a small green line exiting the left side of Velcro's mouth. Fishing entanglements can be very serious and greatly impact the health and longevity of a whale, so we immediately went back to our previous position to try to relocate him for better documentation.

Notice the small green line exiting the left side of Velcro's mouth.  Photo credit: Jen Gatzke
Unfortunately, while the Shelagh is equipped with disentanglement gear, we learned from a disentanglement attempt back in 2013 that she is not the best platform to work from--she is too large and slow. Our colleagues up and down the East Coast usually use a small inflatable boat for this sort of work, so the most we could do in this situation was get more photos and video of the entanglement (similar to our documentation of an entangled right whale in 2014), especially since it was not a previously known entanglement case. Luckily, as we made our way back to where we had last seen the pair, one of them breached in the fog.

Either Scoop or Velcro breaching in the fog. Photo credit: Kelsey Howe
We attempted to better photo-document Velcro, but it was not long before the fog became too thick and unworkable. We had to call it a day and head for land, where we would spend the next two days at Cape Sable Island waiting for storms to pass.

We were so excited to finally be able to work whales and do what we had come all this way to do. There IS life on Roseway Basin and right whales still use this habitat, which is very gratifying and comforting. In total, we photographed 11 individual right whales in this two-day period, many of which were interesting and/or troubling sightings. It is never fun to find an entangled or wounded whale, but it is very important to document them because they exist out there, whether or not we know about it. The more we know, the better we can attempt to help and prevent these occurrences...or at least, that is the goal. And that is why we sometimes photograph through rainstorms.