and help support a vibrant fishing industry.
Image (above): Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, taken under NOAA research permit #15488
More than 650,000 marine mammals are unintentionally killed or seriously injured by fishing gear every year. Of these, more than 300,000 are whales, dolphins and porpoises. Accidental entanglement in fishing ropes and buoy lines is a leading cause of death and injury of many large whale species in the United States and internationally. In some populations, almost every whale has been entangled at least once. Entanglement is an urgent conservation and animal welfare issue that must be addressed.
The critically endangered North Atlantic right whale is being driven to extinction because of accidental entanglement in fishing gear, as well as vessel strikes. Only about 340 right whales now remain, including fewer than 70 reproductive females, and the species is still rapidly declining. If the species is to survive, we cannot lose a single right whale per year from any human cause. Yet, 97 whales have been documented as killed, injured, or in poor health since 2017. More than 86 percent of surviving North Atlantic right whales bear entanglement scars, with females being particularly vulnerable. Females are less likely to have calves for several years after becoming free of an entanglement, creating a further barrier to the species’ recovery.
Fishing gear used to catch lobster and crab in the Northeast United States and Atlantic Canada is the main cause of accidental entanglements of North Atlantic right whales. Lobster and crab are mostly caught with pots and traps on the seafloor that are attached via long vertical lines to marker buoys at the surface. The surface buoys help fishers locate their pots or traps and communicate to others where they are fishing. The buoys also aid necessary fishery management and enforcement activity.
It is estimated that these fisheries use more than a million vertical buoy lines in areas important to feeding and migrating right whales. Climate change has caused right whales to shift their distribution northward and further offshore as they track prey into cooler waters. These shifts have increased the number and severity of interactions between right whales and lobster and crab fisheries in waters off southern New England, the Gulf of Maine, Nova Scotia, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Interactions between fishing gear and right whales also negatively affect fishing communities and the broader industry—resulting in loss of gear, delays in seasonal openings, closures to reduce conflict with whales, and other impediments.
A solution that puts an end to entanglements of North Atlantic right whales and helps the species coexist with economically important fisheries is urgently needed.
Ropeless fishing systems, also known as pop-up or on-demand fishing gear, are working around the world and are a viable solution for whale-safe fishing. These systems remove the vertical line in the water column, virtually eliminating the risk of large whale entanglement while the fishery continues to operate.
Ropeless fishing systems replace vertical buoy lines with a remote-controlled cage, inflatable lift-bag, or spool of rope stowed on the seafloor. GPS or acoustic marking systems can be used to identify the gear’s location. When gear owners want to retrieve a trap, they send an acoustic signal to the unit, like remotely opening a car door, and the rope is released, or the lift bag is inflated, to bring the trap to the surface. Rope is only present in the water column for a few minutes during gear retrieval, if at all.
With the use of ropeless fishing systems, fishing can still occur in areas that otherwise would be closed to protect whales from potential entanglement. By stowing the buoy and line at depth, and marking gear electronically, less gear may be lost to bad weather, boat propellers, or poaching. All of these factors help reduce economic losses experienced by the fishery, and help maintain the overall health of the ecosystem by reducing marine debris.
While much progress has been made to advance ropeless fishing in the United States and Canada, more needs to be done. Fishers need more opportunities to gain hands-on experience using ropeless fishing systems and tailoring them to their unique needs. Far greater economic support is needed for testing and transitioning to ropeless fishing systems so the economic burden does not fall on the fishing industry. Increasing the availability of ropeless fishing systems will also help bring manufacturing costs of the technology down.
Consumers have a key role to play by expressing a preference for whale-safe seafood obtained with ropeless gear and asking commercial seafood buyers and retailers to financially support their suppliers’ efforts to test and transition to ropeless fishing systems within a reasonable but expedited timeframe.
You can help by demanding seafood sourced from ropeless fishing systems that are safer for North Atlantic right whales and other marine species.
While ropeless fishing isn’t yet commercially widespread, you can play an important role by:
As a seafood retailer or buyer, you can help by: