New Brunswick

Computer simulator gives new insight into right whale rope entanglements

A New England team of scientists believe they can help reduce often deadly North Atlantic right whale entanglements with a one-of-a-kind video simulator.

Simulator shows whales' evasion attempts often make their situation worse

A new computer model gives greater insight into how North Atlantic right whales become entangled in fishing lines. (Centre for Coastal Studies/NOAA)

Scientists in New England believe they can help reduce often deadly North Atlantic right whale entanglements with a one-of-a-kind video simulator.

Their computer model simulates how the whales swim in the ocean and become entangled in vertical fishing lines.

The model was designed by Tim Werner and his team at the New England Aquarium's Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life.

"You can't test new gear in real life," Werner told Shift New Brunswick. "There aren't enough whales. It's too dangerous to put experimental ropes out in front of them."

Entanglement the greatest threat

According to the aquarium's research centre, four out of every five North Atlantic right whales have been entangled in fishing lines and almost two thirds have been entangled more than once.

Werner said rope entanglement is the greatest threat to the whales now that new measures have been introduced to decrease the chances of whales being hit by ships.

A dead North Atlantic right whale was found on the shore of Miscou Island last year. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

The Virtual Whale Entanglement Simulator allows researchers to reverse engineer real-life entanglements and change characteristics of the rope in the model to see if they would be less risky, Werner said.

The digital model was constructed using the measurements of a 10-metre long whale.

A paper published by Werner's team observed that whales often begin rolling after interacting with fishing ropes.

"Interestingly, the possibly instinctual reaction of rolling away from the rope was shown to increase the probability that the whale would become entangled," the paper stated.

'There is a lot of conjecture'

Werner said there's plenty of discussion about mitigating entanglements, but "there is a lot of conjecture."

"Some things sound really good in terms of common sense, but without any sort of scientific evidence to show if they're effective or not, you're really just hoping and guessing that you'll make a difference," he said.

It's estimated there are a little more than 400 North Atlantic right whales alive today and only 71 females of breeding age.

Werner said he hopes to expand the model to include other whale species and leatherback turtles.

With files from Shift New Brunswick