A 2012 study estimated that around 83 percent of all living Right Whales have been entangled in fishing gear at some point in their lives. While there is no data pointing to the type of gear that causes injury, lobster traps could be to blame. Now, they are at the center of a heated debate.
The Right Whale population has an estimated 411 individuals, and there were no recorded births in 2018. The later half of the 20th century saw a slow recovery for this previously critically endangered animal, as much of the species was hunted and killed by whaling. While recovery and sustainability efforts have proven successful, Right Whales still face injuries and death from collisions with ships and entanglements in fishing gear. This is where lobstermen are concerned.
In February, the American Lobster Management Board voted unanimously to launch a months-long regulatory process that will consider how lobster fisheries can reduce impact on Right Whales. The most pressing factor is the number of vertical lines – lobster traps sit on the bottom of the ocean, but lines tether them to buoys so lobstermen can claim their catches. Regulators have considered removing up to 40 percent of the lines that link seabed lobster traps to buoys on the surface. This, they hope, will help protect the Right Whale without placing further federal restrictions on the lobster industry.
The American Lobster Management Board has also considered reducing the number of traps outright seasonal closures, changes to fishing gear, and cracking down on lobstermen who fish over their trap limits. Additionally, the lobster industry has considered switching to weaker, easier-breaking ropes in order to protect whales from entanglement, but environmentalists say this measure does not go far enough.
Regulatory and conservation measures are often spurred by brief whale sightings. Last spring, one Right Whale was seen off the coast of Grand Manan Island in New Brunswick, Canada, leading to the early closure of a lobster fishery. This, according to a report, caused a significant financial loss to fishermen. Now, rather than waiting for whales to appear, lobster and fish regulatory boards are trying to be proactive in order to protect the industry.
This conflict has engineers grinding to work, and many inventors are shifting their efforts to create lobster traps that both protect the endangered whales and salvage the fishers’ livelihoods. The Smithsonian Magazine recently profiled a team of engineers who designed a low-cost, lineless, self-surfacing lobster trap that would prevent entanglement by Right Whales. This type of creative problem solving will be necessary in the coming years as lobstermen continue to fight for financial wellbeing in an increasingly unsustainable environment.