A U.S. scientist is trying to stop right whale entanglements with fishing gear, which garnered increased attention after a spate of deaths this past summer.

Mark Baumgartner, a biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass., has been studying North Atlantic right whales since 1999. He said in recent years there's been a shift toward conservation to try and save the species because they could be extinct in 20-25 years. There are fewer than 500 of the whales remaining and the population has been declining for the past seven years.

This past summer saw at least 17 right whales die off the coasts of Canada and the U.S. Necropsy reports on seven of the whales found that two whales likely died due to entanglements with fishing gear, such as lobster and crab traps.

"The rate of fishing gear entanglements for the species has been going up for the past five to 10 years and that was troubling us," Baumgartner said.

Ropeless fishing gear

One of the problems is that modern ropes are much stronger and last longer than they used to, and don't break as easily when they come into contact with large sea animals.

"The rope's so strong the whales can't break out of the rope anymore and that's led to a lot more complicated and a lot more lethal entanglements," Baumgartner said.

Deep Trouble right whales

Mark Baumgartner believes that acoustic technology can be adapted for use in the fishing industry and is bringing together industry stakeholders in February to try to establish experimental fisheries. (Center for Coastal Studies/NOAA)

He believes one solution could be ropeless fishing traps.

"In the oceanographic research community, we put things on the sea floor all the time and get them back without ever using ropes," Baumgartner said. "This would be something that we could apply to the fishing industry, I hope, in an effort to reduce or possibly even eliminate entanglements."

One option is to send traps down to the bottom of the sea floor and they acoustically communicate with devices on fishing boats, which can call them to the surface. Another option is to send deflated bags down with traps, and using an acoustic signal they can inflate the bag and it would raise the trap to the surface. This system would also mark where the traps are by notifying other ships to avoid the area, rather than ropes and buoys.

Experimental fishery needed

A lot of the technology already exists, Baumgartner said, but the next step is to establish an experimental fishery funded by government or private foundations to get the technology in the hands of fishermen to use and improve. While he hasn't lost any equipment due to the technology not working, Baumgartner said there is a failure rate and part of the development will be to find out what the rate is and how to mitigate it.

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is holding a workshop in February to bring together the fishing industry, scientists and Canadian and American regulators to develop experimental fisheries in both Canadian and U.S. waters. Baumgartner said the industry is going to have to change and use new technology to solve the problem while there is still time to save right whales.

"We've tried things in the United States for a number of years to reduce the number and lethality of fishing gear entanglements and nothing has worked yet," Baumgartner said. "Taking ropes out of the water is the only real solution to this problem, so we have to find a way to make this work."

With files from Island Morning