Ropeless fishing gear and right whales

How technology could help save a species

Kate Griese

In this day and age, technology seems to provide us with endless possibilities. It can connect us with loved ones across the world, give us unlimited access to information, and even save lives. Now, technology has the potential to bring a species back from the brink of extinction.

North Atlantic right whales are a majestic and beautiful species. These gentle giants are known to splash and frolic at the ocean’s surface, swim alongside their calves for months after birth, and even use a low-tone frequency that resembles a whisper for their newborns.

Tragically, this magnificent species is on the path to extinction, with just 336 right whales currently left in our oceans. Entanglement in vertical line fishing gear, along with boat strikes, are the leading causes of death for these whales. 

Primarily used in lobster and crab fishing, vertical line fishing gear relies on a fixed vertical rope that extends from the ocean floor to the ocean surface. When gliding through the ocean habitat, right whales must navigate a minefield of these deadly traps. 

If a right whale becomes entangled in this fishing gear, it is often a death sentence. 

The ropes wrap around their flippers, head and mouth and cut deeply into their flesh – sometimes even amputating fins. These heavy ropes can prevent right whales from swimming and feeding properly and when ensnared, they slowly drain these whales of energy. In fact, even if they survive, they can become too exhausted from trying to free themselves to reproduce. A shocking 80% of right whales bear scars from fishing gear entanglements. 

Thankfully, we have the technology we need to save this species — we just need to use it. The first step toward saving right whales from extinction is to take vertical line fishing gear out of the water. That can be done with ropeless fishing technology. Ropeless fishing gear employs an inflatable buoy and remote tracking capabilities to allow lobstermen to find the cage and bring it to the surface– instead of a fixed vertical rope. No ropes in the water means no right whale entanglements.

Replacing deadly, traditional fishing technology with the whale-safe alternative would help breathe new life into the dwindling population. 

Although this novel fishing gear is being tested in New England, larger and more wide scale testing is needed for it to be implemented industry-wide. What do we need to increase the testing of this gear? Funding!

Fortunately, the Right Whales Coexistence Act offers just that.

The Right Whale Coexistence Act, which was introduced in the U.S. Congress this month,  would establish a much-needed grant program to advance conservation efforts for the North Atlantic right whale. Specifically, the act will provide $15 million each year for 10 years for right whale conservation needs.

This grant money would provide an integral resource to invest in the research and testing of this ropeless fishing technology. 

With North Atlantic right whales teetering closer to extinction, we need to act now to save this species. By swiftly passing The Right Whale Coexistence Act, Congress can take the first step toward implementing a technology that could reinvigorate the right whale population.

Photo: Sea to Shore Alliance, taken under NOAA Permit #20556


Kate Griese