The latest technology in fishing line is proving dangerous to the North Atlantic right whale, and could lead to its demise in the Gulf of Maine.

Amy Knowlton, a research scientist with the New England Aquarium in Boston, is working to reduce the risk of whale entanglement and death from fishing gear and lines.

'We believe this is the biggest threat to these animals right now ... and unless we can fix it they could go extinct," says Knowlton.  

'Nobody wants to see an animal suffer.' - Amy Knowlton, research scientist, New England Aqarium

She says the problem is the rope that's used in modern fishing is made from polypropylene, a much stronger and more durable version of the hemp and sisal lines used in the past. 

"These ropes are much stronger and more resistant than natural fibres," she says, and when the whales become entangled they sometimes can't break free.

si-amy-knowlton

Amy Knowlton says right whales could disappear from the Gulf of Maine if a solution isn't found to problem of the whales becoming entangled in fishing lines. (Amy Knowlton)

"They hit that rope and it gets into their mouth and then they start to panic and probably roll a number of times and that rope gets wrapped around their body and potentially around their flukes," she says.

Researchers have published a study showing more whales are being caught and seriously injured with the use of these synthetic lines at a time when the population can't afford to lose any members. Knowlton was the lead researcher on that study by the Consortium for Wildlife Bycatch Reduction in collaboration with the New England Aquarium and the Center for Coastal Studies.

"We've been able to deal with the vessel traffic and reduce the impact of vessel traffic up and down the eastern seaboard of the United States and Canada ... this problem is becoming so prevalent," Knowlton says.

Knowlton says the solution is to work with manufacturers and with the fishing industry to come up with a rope that while strong enough for its intended use, will not be so strong it can withstand the strength of a whale.

"The goal we're working on now is to work with rope manufacturers to actually produce rope that would have a lower breaking strength, but have better degradation resistance." 

Knowlton says more than 80 per cent of the whale population shows evidence of having tangled with fishing lines. Most bear scars, but for some, it's a lethal encounter.

She says she believes the fishing industry is willing to work on this problem, as it creates problems for them, too.

"No fisherman wants to catch a whale, I'm sure. It results in gear loss for them. Nobody wants to see an animal suffer." 

  

​