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How 'ropeless' gear could save North Atlantic right whales

This image provided by NOAA, shows a North Atlantic right whale visiting the waters off New England on May 25, 2024. (NOAA via AP) This image provided by NOAA, shows a North Atlantic right whale visiting the waters off New England on May 25, 2024. (NOAA via AP)
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An environmental agency is urging Fisheries and Oceans Canada to release its whale safety gear strategy in the wake of another North Atlantic right whale getting entangled in the Gulf of St. Lawrence – the second such occurrence in the area so far this year.

Kim Elmslie, campaign director with Oceana Canada, said they are still waiting for any updates on the young entangled whale known as War, which was seen with rope in its mouth and around its right flipper on June 22.

"The Gulf is a big place,” Elmslie said. “One of the challenges is you have to re-sight the whale. Sometimes they can shake themselves free of the gear. That's a really good outcome.”

Another whale called Shelagh was able to shake off her unwanted gear earlier this year. She was first spotted with fishing gear in her mouth last May, but in June an aerial crew saw her without the obstruction. Elmslie said the incident marked Shelagh’s fifth known entanglement.

Elmslie said the federal government committed to a Whale Safe Gear Strategy in March 2023 and groups like Oceana Canada are still waiting for its full release.

“It’d be an outline on how they’d transition fisheries to using ropeless gear,” Elmslie said. “It gives everybody certainty of what it would look like. Gear manufacturers would know there would be an increase in demands.”

Sasha-Gay Lobban, communications advisor with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, said the department is preparing to share the five-year draft strategy with “key Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishery partners and stakeholders and whale experts” for feedback and input early this summer.

The final strategy will be published this winter.

Elmslie said ropeless gear is the key to potentially saving the critically endangered right whale population – which currently rests at an estimated 336 – while also giving Atlantic fishers a possible market advantage.

So what exactly is ropeless gear?

“You have a lobster or crab pot and instead of dropping it with a rope, you have different mechanism in the cage – remotely operated – that fills with air and lifts the gear and it becomes buoyant,” Elmslie said. “You catch it as it comes up. There are others with buoys attached.”

The idea behind ropeless – or on-demand – gear is to reduce the amount of rope columns linking buoys at the surface to traps on the ocean floor. These setups, when used too much in one area, can create a maze for whales, increasing their chances of running into a rope and becoming entangled.

“Reducing entanglements is necessary to mitigate extinction risk given that more than 85 per cent of the population has been entangled at some point in their lifetime,” reads a statement on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries website. “Since 2017…at least 40 right whales have been confirmed dead or observed seriously injured due to entanglement, with estimates suggesting the true number is likely closer to 100 due to unobserved deaths.”

Elmslie said fishers would be able to track their gear using a tracking device – once the technology is ready.

“It’s like an air tracker on your gear, that’s the future vision,” she said. “There are still kinks to work out. They’re going through trials. It’s not quite there yet.”

Elmslie said some fisheries in Australia have used ropeless gear and certain black sea bass fisheries in the United States are looking into it.

“This seems to be the future of fishing gear,” she said. “It’s such a big change. There are a lot of fishermen who are open to trialing the gear.”

Elmslie said the United States’ Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits the harming or killing of whales, including accidental deaths during commercial fishing. She notes a ropeless gear strategy could allow Canadian fishers to export catches to a major market without violating the act.

“I think it’s the way to go,” she said. “I think it will give Canadian fish an advantage. People are asking more questions about the impact on the environment and (ropeless gear) could be a huge market advantage.”

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