As early as this week, federal fisheries regulators are expected to propose a new rule so North Atlantic right whales, humpbacks and fin whales will be less likely to get entangled in vertical fishing lines.
A team of commercial fishermen, conservationists, scientists and government regulators have been considering several options such as seasonal closures and changes to gear configuration, but the exact recommendation won’t be revealed until formal federal procedures have been completed, said Mary Colligan, assistant regional director for Protected Resources with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service regional office in Gloucester.
The announcement comes as whale entanglement specialists in Massachusetts are considering how entanglement affects the survival of large whales, most recently how the entangling fishing gear saps their energy stores.
The waters off Cape Cod are an important feeding ground for the rare right whales, and are home to humpbacks, fin whales and others. Entanglement in fishing rope, often attached to traps or buoys, is a leading cause of whale deaths all along the Atlantic Ocean coastline.
Over five years, from 2006 to 2010, there have been from one to four confirmed deaths and serious injuries annually of North Atlantic right whales in U.S. and Canadian waters, according to a federal report.
“We’re disentangling them and really hoping for the best,” Scott Landry, who directs whale disentanglement at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, said Friday. “But we have to solve the disentanglement problem as well.”
The federal government is charged with protecting whales under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act. Some marine mammal conservationists believe the effort to stop entanglements has lagged, particularly for right whales, humpbacks, fins and sei whales, according to a lawsuit filed in 2011 in federal district court in Boston.
Since the case was filed, the legal quarrel has narrowed to a discussion of the vertical lines used in lobster fishing. Settlement talks were held in April in the case, Sharon Young, a spokeswoman for The Humane Society said Tuesday but “the case is still ongoing at this point.”
Federal officials have no comment on the lawsuit, NOAA Fisheries Service spokesman Maggie Mooney-Seus said.
In 2006, the federal regulators banned floating ground lines, which have loops of rope attached to gear at the bottom of the ocean. The upcoming proposed rule would focus on fishing gear that has rope running from near the ocean floor to the surface, such as used in the fixed traps or pots that catch lobsters.
It’s the gear that poses the risk, not a specific commercial fishing sector, Colligan said Wednesday.
The announcement would be followed by public hearings, Colligan said.
A paper published in May in the journal Marine Mammal Science described the last 40 days of a young right whale that was found entangled in fixed trap or pot gear in Florida waters in 2011. It was the first effort to calculate how much energy whales use when they have to drag fishing gear through water. The ropes and buoys that wrap around a whale – and that remain for months and even years – can cause infections and tissue damage, but more commonly lead to severe emaciation as the whale uses up extra calories, according to the paper.
“Disentanglement doesn’t always save them,” Julie van der Hoop, lead author and a graduate student in biological oceanography at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said Monday.
The female right whale – No. 3911 in the national catalog of right whales – was born in 2009. Surveyors first saw her entangled and appearing emaciated on Dec. 25, 2010, in waters off Jacksonville, Fla., according to the paper. Synthetic rope was around her mouth and both pectoral fins or flippers. About 100 feet of rope trailed behind her. The gear was believed to be used for fixed trap/pot fishing.
Rescuers were unsuccessful on Dec. 29 and 30, 2010, to free her but were able to attach a sensor. They partially untangled her on Jan. 15, 2011, near Melbourne, Fla., but she was seen dead on Feb. 1, 2011, and then towed to shore for a necropsy.
Researchers learned the whale changed her dive duration and depth when she was entangled, the paper said. That meant she might not have foraged as much and might have stayed at the surface more, making her more vulnerable to deadly ship strikes.
But the added drag, calculated by researchers using the actual gear in waters off Marion, was the most significant problem, the paper said.. The results showed an entangled whale would run out of the normal store of energy for a migratory trip from the Gulf of Maine to Florida about 75 percent of the way, compared to a nonentangled animal.
Since that study, van der Hoop and other marine mammal researchers have obtained 15 other sets of fishing gear from entangled right whales off the Atlantic coast for further study.
Landry, of the Center for Coastal Studies, cautioned Friday that the study of the Florida right whale was about one animal only.
Between 1997 and 2011, there were 21 right whales disentangled by the center and its partners, and at least 11 calves have been produced by those survivors, Landry said. That includes the calf born to the right whale Wart, when the pair were first seen on the western side of Cape Cod in January, Landry said.
A study in 2012, which looked at the effect of entanglement on right whales from a population perspective, has shown that if a right whale survives into the next year after disentanglement, that its chances of survival are near to normal, he said.
“Overall we’re very heartened by what we see,” he said.