Lobster fishery reduces floating rope in hopes of protecting North Atlantic right whales

Lobster fishers on P.E.I. are taking new measures this season to help protect the endangered North Atlantic right whales from entanglement.

At least 18 of the endangered mammals died in Canadian and U.S. waters last year

A North Atlantic right whale entangled in Cape Cod, Mass. Lobster fishermen on P.E.I. are taking steps this year to reduce the chances of whales getting caught in their gear. (Center for Coastal Studies/NOAA permit #932-1905)

Lobster fishers on P.E.I. are taking new measures this season to help protect the endangered North Atlantic right whales from entanglement.

In January, Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc announced changes to the snow crab fishery in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to protect the right whales, including reducing the amount of rope floating on the surface and mandatory reporting of all lost gear.

Fishermen are also required to report any sightings of the endangered whales.

This North Atlantic right whale entangled in ropes and freed by fishermen off the coast of Virginia in 2013. (Pat Foster/Adrian Colaprete)

At least 18 North Atlantic right whales died in Canadian and U.S. waters last year.

Necropsies on seven of the carcasses determined four whales died of blunt force trauma from collisions with ships, while the other three likely died from entanglements in fishing gear.

There are only an estimated 450 to 500 of the whales left in the world.

'Delicate balance'

This winter, the P.E.I. Fishermen's Association set up a special working group focused on helping to protect the right whale, with members representing all 13 species fished around Prince Edward Island.

"It's a delicate balance between the fishery and the survival of these species," said Melanie Giffin, a marine biologist and program planner with PEIFA. 

"So our members will do everything they can in terms of reducing rope and to try to help reduce those entanglements for the whales."

This small, female, North Atlantic right whale died from severe entanglement last summer. A necropsy was performed on Miscou Island, New Brunswick in August. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Giffin said most of the measures are being mandated by the federal department of fisheries.

"There's a reduction in the amount of floating rope on the surface of the water and that's being done in numerous species," she said.

'It's not specific that it has to be lead rope but the rope needs to be sinking."

Melanie Giffin says the PEIFA board was being proactive by setting up a working group to protect the right whales. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

In the snow crab fishery, there will also be colour coding of ropes, with different colours woven into the rope to identify where it's from, including P.E.I.

"That's to ensure that if there is a whale entangled, we have an idea of where that whale was entangled," Giffin said.

"If they're all entangled in the same area, then maybe management measures need to be looked more closely in that area, rather than the Gulf as a whole."

There is no colour coding for lobster ropes yet, she added.

One of the right whales towed to shore for a necropsy at Norway, P.E.I. (Marine Animal Response Society)

As with the snow crab fishery, lobster fishers are now required to notify DFO if they lose any gear and give approximate GPS coordinates.

"It could be a trap, it could be a set of traps, it could be a buoy, any gear that is lost on the water now, there's a 1-800 number that gets them to DFO," Giffin said.

"That's to try to ensure that it doesn't get entangled that way."

6 trap sets

While most of the measures are mandatory, one group of lobster fishers voted to make a change this season to help protect the whales, as well as sea turtles, from entanglement.

In lobster fishing area 24, along P.E.I.'s North Shore, they are now using six trap sets, or bunches. In the past, they could have just a single trap in a set.

"Some fishermen had three trap sets, four trap sets, some had seven or eight," said Francis Morrissey, who sits on the Lobster Advisory Board for area 24. "You can have more than six but you can't have less than six."

Francis Morrissey says lobster fishers want to ensure a right whale does not get entangled in any of their gear. (Rick Gibbs/CBC)

The idea, Morrissey said, is to eliminate rope as well as buoys.

"We feel we're eliminating somewhere around 16,000 styrofoam buoys out of the system and each of those buoys is responsible for 130 or 140 feet of rope, which go from the buoy down to the trap," Morrissey said.

"So we feel that by doing this, there's 16,000 less chances for marine mammals to get entangled."

He estimates that's a 25 per cent reduction of rope in the water.

"There was never a whale entangled in lobster gear but we just want to do whatever we can to make sure it doesn't happen," Morrissey said.

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Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water or in the gym rowing, or walking her dog.