After three recent fishing gear entanglements involving the rare North American right whale, a Boston researcher says collaboration between fishers, biologists, and engineers isn't fixing the problem.
While attitudes are evolving, the historically adversarial relationship between scientists and fishing industry stakeholders has been bad news for the whale population.
Consortium for Wildlife Bycatch Reduction director Tim Werner said the group has looked at myriad solutions since it was formed a decade ago, including ropes that glow in order to warn whales, gear with a lower breaking strength that can still hold up to the rigours of fishing, and acoustic releases that eliminate the need for ropes altogether.
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But so far, the success in preventing whale entanglements has been limited, according to Werner.
In the United States, many regulations have been implemented requiring fishermen to change either their gear or their methods of fishing, but "We still haven't seen any evidence that it's made a difference in preventing whale entanglements," he said.
The problem isn't always with the new methods, per se.
"Technologically, absolutely they work," he said. "But the challenge is you don't want to increase either the time, or the expense, that fishermen have to make their living. That's hardly successful, even if it works for whales."
Werner says there's also a desire to achieve immediate results — and when that doesn't happen, researchers and stakeholders get discouraged.
"Human beings, in my experience, by nature tend to initially resist change," said Werner. "Fishermen certainly have an automatic response that says, 'Look, I've been doing this for a long time, what I've been doing works. Why should I have to change my gear to avoid getting a whale entangled?'"
But he says whether or not individual fishermen have encountered whale entanglements, the growing number of injured and dead whales speaks to a need for sustained change. Two of the mammals were recently killed after trailing thousands of pounds of rope and netting, and "likely died from malnutrition and stress."
"It's hard to avoid that this is happening," said Werner.
He said maintaining funding is also issue.
"Collectively, we have not always maintained a sustained effort to come up with the right fishing solutions to this problem," said Werner.
"People try things and if it's not an instant success, they say, 'Well that doesn't work,' and they're done with that."
He said willingness is needed to revisit and refine ideas that might not work right away, but show promise.
"It involves a really close interplay between those [that] know the resource and the fishing activity, and those of us who know about the animals that get bycaught," said Werner.
"It's an ongoing process."