Many fish, marine mammals and seabirds that inhabit the world's oceans are critically endangered, but few are as close to the brink as the North Atlantic right whale ( Eubalaena glacialis). Only about 411 of these whales exist today, and at their current rate of decline, they could become extinct within our lifetimes.
From 1980 through about 2010, conservation efforts focused mainly on protecting whales from being struck by ships. Federal regulations helped reduce vessel collisions and supported a slight rebound in right whale numbers.
But at the same time, growing numbers of right whales died after becoming entangled in lobster and crab fishing gear. This may have happened because fishing ropes became stronger, and both whales and fishermen shifted their ranges so that areas of overlap increased. Entanglement has caused 80 percent of diagnosed mortalities since 2010, and the population has taken a significant downward turn.
This comes after a millennium of whaling that decimated the right whale population, reducing it from perhaps between 10,000 to 20,000 to a few hundred animals today. And entanglement deaths are much more inhumane than harpoons. A whaler's explosive harpoon kills quickly, compared to months of drawn-out pain and debilitation caused by seemingly harmless fishing lines. We believe these deaths can be prevented by working with the trap fishing industries to adopt ropeless fishing gear – but North Atlantic right whales are running out of time.
Whalers pursued right whales for centuries because this species swam relatively slowly and floated when dead, so it was easier to kill and retrieve than other whales. By the mid-20th century, scientists assumed they had been hunted to extinction. But in 1980, researchers from the New England Aquarium who were studying marine mammal distribution in the Bay of Fundy off eastern Canada were stunned when they sighted 26 right whales.
Conservation efforts led to the enactment of regulations that required commercial ships to slow down in zones along the U.S. Atlantic coast where they were highly likely to encounter whales, reducing boat strikes. But this victory has been offset by rising numbers of entanglements.
Adult right whales can produce up to an estimated 8,000 pounds of force with a single stroke of their flukes. When they become tangled in fishing gear, they often break it and swim off trailing ropes and sometimes crab or lobster traps.
Lines and gear can wrap around a whale's body, flukes, flippers and mouth. They impede swimming and feeding, and cause chronic infection, emaciation and damage to blubber, muscle and bone. Ultimately these injuries weaken the animal until it dies, which can take months to years.
Fishing rope furrowed into the lip of Bayla, right whale #3911.
Michael Moore / NMFS Permit 932-1905-00 / MA-009526 / CC BY-ND
One of us, Michael Moore, is trained as a veterinarian and has examined many entangled dead whales. Moore has seen fishing rope embedded inches deep into a whale's lip, and a juvenile whale whose spine had been deformed by the strain of dragging fishing gear. Other animals had flippers nearly severed by swimming wrapped in inexorably constricting ropes. Entanglement injuries to right whales are the worst animal trauma Moore has seen in his career.
Even if whales are able to wriggle free and live, the extreme stress and energy demands of entanglement, along with inadequate nutrition, are thought to be preventing females from getting pregnant and contributing to record low calving rates in recent years.
Solutions for Whales and Fishermen
The greatest entanglement risk is from ropes that lobster and crab fishermen use to attach buoys to traps they set on the ocean floor. Humpback and minke whales and leatherback sea turtles, all of which are federally protected, also become entangled.
Conservationists are looking for ways to modify or eliminate these ropes. Rock lobster fishermen in Australia already use pop-up buoys that ascend when they receive sound signals from fishing boats. The buoys trail out ropes as they rise, which fishermen retrieve and use to pull up their traps.
Other technologies are in development, including systems that acoustically identify traps on the seafloor and mark them with "virtual buoys" on fishermen's chart plotters, eliminating the need for surface buoys. Fishermen also routinely use a customized hook on the end of a rope to catch the line between traps and haul them to the surface when the buoy line goes missing.
Transitioning to ropeless technology will require a sea change in some of North America's most valuable fisheries. The 2016 U.S. lobster catch was worth U.S. $670 million. Canadian fishermen landed CA$1.3 billion worth of lobster and CA$590 million worth of snow crab.
Just as no fisherman wants to catch a whale, researchers and conservationists don't want to put fishermen out of business. In our view, ropeless technologies offer a genuine opportunity for whales and the fishing industry to co-exist if they can be made functional, affordable and safe to use.
Switching to ropeless gear is unlikely to be cheap. But as systems evolve and simplify, and production scales up, they will become more affordable. And government support could help fishermen make the shift. In Canada, the federal and New Brunswick provincial governments recently awarded CA$2 million to Canadian snow crab fishermen to test two ropeless trap designs.
Converting could save fishermen money in the long run. For example, California Dungeness crab fishermen closed their 2019 season three months ahead of schedule on April 15 to settle a lawsuit over whale entanglements, leaving crab they could have caught still in the water. Under the agreement, fishermen using ropeless gear will be exempt from future early closures.
A Rebound is Possible
The Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act require the U.S. government to conserve endangered species. In Congress, the pending SAVE Right Whales Act of 2019 would provide $5 million annually for collaborative research into preventing mortalities caused by the fishing and shipping industries. And an advisory committee to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently recommended significant fishing protections, focused primarily on reducing the number of ropes in the water column and the strength of the remaining lines.
Consumers can also help. Public outcry over dolphin bycatch in tuna fisheries spurred passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and led to dolphin-safe tuna labeling, which ultimately reduced dolphin mortalities from half a million to about 1,000 animals annually. Choosing lobster and crab products caught without endangering whales could accelerate a similar transition.
Population trends in the North Atlantic and southern right whale species (estimates for North Atlantic species prior to 1990 are unavailable; southern estimates prior to 1990 on decadal scale). Illegal whaling caused a downturn in the southern species in the 1960s.
North Atlantic right whales can still thrive if humans make it possible. The closely related southern right whale (Eubalaena australis), which has faced few human threats since the end of commercial whaling, has rebounded from just 300 animals in the early 20th century to an estimated 15,000 in 2010.
There are real ways to save North Atlantic right whales. If they go extinct, it will be on this generation's watch.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
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By Jason Bittel
Imagine if safari-goers in Africa came upon an elephant trudging through the brush covered in a tangle of ropes and netting. What if, on closer inspection, they found that the animal's mouth was blocked, preventing it from eating, or that lengths of rope had coiled around and cut into its legs, making every stride a battle? Imagine if the last thing those tourists saw was the elephant disappearing into the forest, dragging a veritable ball and chain of man-made debris behind it.
Unfortunately, this hypothetical scenario comes pretty close to the actual, real-life nightmare suffered on a daily basis by a different creature, the North Atlantic right whale, in its primary habitat off the east coast of the U.S. and Canada.
"It's a horrific animal welfare issue, but because it's out there in the ocean, we generally can't see it," said Francine Kershaw, a scientist with NRDC's Marine Mammal Protection Project.
Fewer than 450 North Atlantic right whales remain on Earth, and of that tiny population, 83 percent bear scars from entanglements in fishing gear. Around half of those have been entangled more than once. All in all, entanglement is now the number one cause of death for this species, responsible for 85 percent of all deaths since 2010, which both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the International Union for Conservation of Nature classify as endangered.
Over the past few decades, the North Atlantic right whale had been seeing slow but steady gains, thanks to international efforts to protect critical habitats, move shipping lanes away from the whales, and develop methods to monitor the whales' health. But the population peaked around 2010 and is now in decline. At least 17 of the animals died as a result of entanglements and boat strikes in 2017—nearly twice as many as had died in the previous five years combined.
It gets worse. "It seems the females have been recovering less well than males," said Kershaw. Of the 450 or so animals remaining, fewer than 100 are breeding females. What's more, Kershaw said, females used to live for about 60 to 70 years but are now making it only to around 30 or 40. And whereas they produced a calf every three years in the 1980s, females are now raising a baby whale just about once per decade.
In fact, this year scientists have yet to find a single calf among the entire North Atlantic right whale population. It is possible that the animals are losing their ability to replace their dead. And for such slow-to-mature, slow-to-reproduce animals, a trend like that can go on for only so long. "At this rate of decline, they're estimated to be functionally extinct in approximately 20 years," said Kershaw.
Twenty years. The Simpsons may outlast them.
Are you ready for the good news? We already have a solution on hand to reverse their fate. It's called ropeless gear.
To understand why such a simple, tangible fix could play a key role in boosting the species' numbers, it's important to understand the main cause of right whale entanglements. Various fishing industries employ long, vertical ropes, such as those that connect lobster and crab traps on the ocean floor to buoys at the water's surface. These lines allow fishermen to find their traps—also known as pots—once they've dropped them. When whales run into these lines, their first instinct is to roll, which is how they become ensnared. Sometimes the ropes trap the whales and drown them, but more often the whales break the pots from their moorings and escape—albeit with literally tons of gear in tow. These tethers cut into the animals' skin and force them to spend more calories than normal just to swim. Kershaw points out that some ensnared whales may just starve to death over time as a result.
But attaching traps to long ropes is not the only way for fishermen to find their gear. Ropeless technology provides new methods for locating that equipment without posing threats to the whales. "This is not a pie-in-the-sky idea," said Caroline Good, a marine ecologist and scientific consultant. "This is something that can be implemented and actually is being used right now in some parts of the world."
One method is to tag gear with GPS and then grab it using a grappling hook. In fact, fishermen are already doing this in Florida's golden crab fishery, even in waters up to 800 feet deep. But Good said grappling hooks may be too simplistic to apply in much larger fisheries, like the crab and lobster operations of New England and Canada's Atlantic provinces. For these areas, acoustic retrieval mechanisms probably have the most promise. These systems would allow fishermen to send a signal down to their gear that either triggers the release of a guide rope or the inflation of a buoy to cause the whole kit and caboodle to surface. As Good points out, this technology is not new—it's been used for decades by the military, the oil and gas industry, geologists, and other researchers. "It's just the idea of using it for fisheries that's new," she said.
Of course, a host of issues will need to be sorted out before ropeless gear can be implemented widely. For starters, fishermen will need a new way to know where their colleagues are deploying nets and traps so that they don't accidentally lay another set down on top. Similarly, operators of other fisheries, especially those using trawl nets or dragnets, will need to be looped into the system to keep from inadvertently plowing through the buoy-less gear. And finally, law enforcement will need to find a way to retain access to the submerged gear for inspection.
But these and other issues are solvable, so long as all stakeholders are included in the industry's evolution. "We feel it's very important for this to be done in partnership with the fishing industry," said Kershaw, "and it's imperative that the National Marine Fisheries Service show greater leadership."
Of course, ropeless gear alone can't save the North Atlantic right whale. Kershaw said it's crucial that we continue to push back against the oil and gas industry's use of seismic testing and the U.S. Navy's use of military sonar, as both have been linked to increased stress and negative health effects in whales and other marine mammals. It's also critical that we fight to defend the Marine Mammal Protection Act, under threat by the Trump administration's plan to expand offshore drilling to nearly all American waters, among various other pieces of proposed legislation.
In summation, if we want to save the North Atlantic right whales from going extinct, we'll need to play both the short game and the long. Luckily, the whales may yet have a few tricks up their sleeves too.
Remember how scientists have yet to find a new calf in 2018? It certainly sounds like bad news, but you could also consider it a survival mechanism for the whale females. Or at the very least, the lesser of two scary scenarios.
"The real disaster would be emaciated moms giving birth to calves that they then cannot nurse because they don't have enough fat," Good said. This could lead to the deaths of both the mothers and the calves, which would essentially be the last nail in the coffin. Instead, years without calves may occur when the female whales' bodies save them from the intense energy expenditure required to produce and rear a calf.
"From an evolutionary, long-term standpoint, their bodies know what to do," said Good. In other words, the North Atlantic right whales are doing all they can to keep their present numbers steady. As for their future, it's up to us.
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Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
But the situation appears to be getting worse: Researchers tracking the whales' usual calving grounds off Georgia and northern Florida have not seen a single calf yet this breeding season, which started in December and peaks in January and February.
To compare, an average of 17 calves a year were born from 1990 to 2014. Only five were born in 2017. It would be "unprecedented" if no calves are born are this year, as Charles "Stormy" Mayo, director of the Right Whale Ecology Program at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Mass, told the New York Times.
He noted that it's possible that the whales moved somewhere else to give birth, or calves might be found later in the season, which lasts through the end of March.
"I will not be surprised, though I will be excited, if we see a calf or two in Cape Cod Bay," said Dr. Mayo, whose research team tracks the animals in the bay.
The species has been struggling since the 1970s when they were first declared endangered. Last year, 17 of them died, or about 4 percent of its total population.
Entanglements from lobster trap lines and other commercial fishing gear have been responsible for 85 percent of all North Atlantic right whale deaths since 2010. Climate change also makes matters worse. Experts say that if the current trend continues, the North Atlantic right whale could go extinct by 2040.
Lobster Industry Ensnared in North Atlantic Right Whale Deaths https://t.co/73px17ThX3 @savingoceans @SeafoodWatch— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1518490825.0
And there's another looming threat. In April, President Donald Trump signed an executive order aimed at expanding offshore oil drilling and exploration. Seismic airgun blasting, which is used to find oil and gas beneath the ocean floor, has been proposed within the same main range of North Atlantic right whales.
Scientists warn that seismic airgun blasting is so incredibly loud and powerful that it could adversely affect the whales and other marine life. The government's own 2014 environmental review estimates that seismic airgun blasting in the Atlantic could injure as many as 138,000 marine mammals like dolphins and whales, while disturbing the vital activities of millions more.
Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-MA), who is leading a bipartisan group of New England Senators in introducing legislation to bar offshore drilling along the New England coast, was alarmed by the daunting status of right whale.
"The endangered right whale is heading towards extinction," he tweeted. "The only thing that would be more harmful for their chances of survival than @realDonaldTrump's offshore drilling plan would be actually hunting them for their oil. #ProtectOurCoast"
The endangered right whale is heading towards extinction. The only thing that would be more harmful for their chanc… https://t.co/LNmmOjiraB— Ed Markey (@Ed Markey)1519848047.0
By Sam Schipani
Last year was not a good one for the North Atlantic right whale. Seventeen of them were discovered to have died, about 4 percent of a total population of 455. Numbers have been low for decades—the species was declared endangered in 1973—but if the current trend continues, the North Atlantic right whale, one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world, could go extinct by 2040.
In response, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and the American Humane Society are suing the U.S. Department of Commerce, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) Fisheries and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). According to the complaint filed on Jan. 18, entanglements from lobster trap lines and other commercial fishing gear unduly jeopardize the dwindling whale populations and breach the species' right to protection under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The lobster industry has long been implicated in North Atlantic right whale mortality. Passing whales can easily become entangled in lobster fishing gear—and when they do, their deaths can be slow, painful and gruesome. The heavy fishing line, which is often still connected to the clunky lobster traps, can wrap around a whale's head, mouth, flippers, or tail. Entangled whales either drown, unable to surface for air, or the remaining line impedes their feeding and reproduction while causing festering infections. Entanglements have been responsible for 85 percent of all North Atlantic right whale deaths since 2010. Now, climate change is making matters worse.
The Gulf of Maine is one of the fastest warming bodies of water on the planet. Lobster populations have migrated north to warmer waters, resulting in catches that are more lucrative in Maine than in other areas of the Atlantic. Maine's lobster industry is booming—the state currently catches more than 80 percent of all lobsters caught in the U.S. This means that lobstermen are setting more traps just as more North Atlantic right whales are showing up, following the warmer waters north to feed. The shifting habitats and increase in fishing has led to a "perfect storm of mortalities of right whales," said Richard Pace, a large-whale researcher at NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center. In 2016, Maine set a record when the state harvested more than 130 million pounds of crustaceans. With the global appetite for lobster steadily increasing, the question of how the lobster industry can help prevent whale deaths is ever more pressing.
"The right whale situation has really become a crisis," said Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. "Entanglement in commercial fishing gear is now the number one cause of the species' critically endangered status, and the federal government needs to do everything in its power if we're going to save these amazing animals from going extinct."
North Atlantic right whales are not just majestic; they also play an important role in marine ecosystems. They help to support the production of plankton, which is the very base of the food web and gives us half the oxygen we breathe. Whales also help sustain fish stock and cycle nutrients throughout the marine food web.
"[The North Atlantic right whale] is a unique species. It is only found along the East Coast of the U.S. and Canada. It doesn't live anywhere else in the world," commented Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation. "If we not only have an obligation to protect them, we should selfishly want to protect them because we need them."
Historically, Maine's lobster industry has managed lobster populations sustainably. That, plus lobster populations scuttling northward, has likely contributed to its success compared to other American lobster fisheries. A report by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute details how Maine lobstermen achieved record hauls with a decades-old conservation strategy. They only use traps—no dragging or diving allowed—and the traps must have slats for juvenile lobsters and biodegradable hatches to release lobsters if the trap is lost. Large, egg-carrying females are returned to the sea marked with a "v notch" in their tail to signal to other lobstermen that the lobster is off limits.
But when it comes to whales, Maine's lobster industry is subject to less regulation than other parts of the northeastern coast. About 71 percent of Maine's waters are exempt from NOAA Fisheries' Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan—which requires modifications like marking gear and sink rope to reduce the industry's impact on whales—under the rationale that whales are not present in the exempted areas, such as bays, harbors and inlets.
The federal government has been grappling with how to regulate the industry to prevent whale deaths for almost a decade. In 2009, legislation required lobstermen to replace all floating rope on groundlines with sinking rope, which is less likely to entangle whales. In 2015, a new federal rule went into effect requiring lobstermen to use up to 15 traps with each buoy when fishing beyond designated exemption lines off Maine's coast. The legislation was designed to reduce the number of vertical lines in the water column and, thus, reduce the chance that whales would get entangled.
The regulations immediately drew ire from lobstermen across the state. "The prohibition on float rope has increased the cost of business for Maine's lobster industry, which is already subject to increasing costs of fuel and bait," said Jeff Nichols, communications director at the Maine Department of Marine Resources. "Sink rope has been shown to wear out much faster than float rope, which results in the need to replace the rope more often and has led to more gear loss because sink rope has been shown to get caught on the rocky bottom and break."
Worse still, the sinking rope and vertical line legislation didn't prevent whale deaths. In 2016, researchers from the New England Aquarium, Woods Hole and other institutions released a paper concluding that there is no evidence that current fishing regulations have been effective at reducing mortality in whales. Becky Bartovics, executive committee member at the Sierra Club's Maine Chapter, cited a lack of both proper science and consultation of local knowledge as the cause of the legislative blunder. "I'm sure the intention was to reduce the number of lines going to the bottom, but 15 traps weigh a lot." That weight, if entangled with a whale, will certainly kill the animal—and it puts stress on the fishermen, too.
In light of these ineffective attempts to address whale mortality, local lobstermen and conservationists alike are wary of new legislation. "Many times the scientists have come up with a solution without working with the lobstermen," Bartovics said. "That's why the lobstermen are frustrated." The lobster community in Maine has been open to other solutions. A 2014 study showed that red and orange ropes are more visible to right whales and could reduce entanglements; according to Bartovics, some lobstermen have started spraying red paint on their ropes to do just that.
The lawsuit filed in January aims to hold fisheries accountable for North Atlantic right whales' deaths and, ultimately, put more mitigation efforts in place
"The long-term goal is to figure this out across fisheries and across species. The goal is not to shut down fisheries," Asmutis-Silvia said. "There are no bad guys here. We need to work together to figure out a solution."
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.
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The population of endangered North Atlantic right whales is under threat due to entanglement in fishing gear and a resulting drop in birth rates, according to a study published by the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.
Even though North Atlantic rightwhales numbers have modestly increased from 295 individuals in 1992 to 500 individuals in 2015, the rate of baby right whales born annually have dropped by nearly 40 percent since 2010, the study states.
Due to these low calving rates, the study implies that the whale's already-precarious population faces a grim future.
"Our review of the recent science suggests that fishing gear entanglements are increasing in number and severity, and that this source of injury and mortalities may be overwhelming recovery efforts," the authors warn.
A 2015 draft marine mammal stock assessment for right whales from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) reported that between 2009 and 2013, an average of 4.3 right whales were killed by human activities each year—nearly all attributable to entanglement in fishing gear.
A whale tangled in fishing gear such a ropes and nets can suffer and ultimately die from a painful death. The International Whaling Commission Entanglement states on its website that entanglement can lead to drowning, laceration, infection and starvation. According to a report cited by the organization, an estimated 308,000 whales and dolphins die each year due to entanglement in fishing gear.
Even whales that survive entanglement can suffer from long-term negative physical and reproductive effects, Scott Kraus, a scientist with the New England Aquarium in Boston and study author, described to the Associated Press.
"They are carrying heavy gear around, and they can't move as fast or they can't feed as effectively," he said. "And it looks like it affects their ability to reproduce because it means they can't put on enough fat to have a baby."
The research found that entanglements have surpassed ship strikes as the number one killer of right whales in recent years. From 1970 to 2009, 44 percent of right whale deaths were due to ship strikes and 35 percent due to entanglements. But from 2010 to 2015, 15 percent of deaths were due to vessel strikes and 85 percent due to entanglements.
Beloved Orca Found Dead Due to Entanglement in Fishing Gear https://t.co/iXOOKsP1bx @World_Wildlife @anon99percenter— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1452301287.0
Right whale deaths from vessel strikes have declined thanks to governmental regulations that lowered ship speed limits near right whale habitats in 2008. But on the flip side, "despite a nearly 20-year U.S. federal effort to reduce accidental kills of whales in fishing gear, sub-lethal and lethal entanglement rates have increased, and there is no evidence that current fishing regulations have been effective at reducing mortality," the study states.
"As of 2015, 83 percent of all right whales display scars or carry ropes indicative of past entanglements," the study says.
As CBC News noted from the study, growth in offshore fishing and the introduction of of heavier offshore fishing gear and increased movement of existing whale populations has led to ever-grislier injuries from entanglement.
"As they encounter stronger ropes and heavier gear, the damage to the animals is more severe and lasts longer," Kraus told CBC News. "It's like if you break a leg, it takes you weeks or months to recover."
Researchers are currently working on ways to reduce entanglement. Science Daily reported that aquarium scientists Amy Knowlton and Tim Werner are working on developing fishing ropes that can more readily break when whales become enmeshed in them.
The authors of the current report stress that right whales "are not yet a conservation success story" and "need immediate and significant management intervention to reduce mortalities and injuries from fishing gear."
"Managers need a better understanding about the causes of reduced calving rates before this species can be considered on the road to recovery," the authors conclude. "Failure to act on this new information will lead to further declines in this population's number and increase its vulnerability to extinction."
North Atlantic right whales, identifiable by their distinctive white spots on its head, have had a long history with human exploitation, especially during the whaling industry era, the World Wildlife Fund states. Whaling for this species became illegal in the 1930s as the population neared extinction. The whales are also under threat due to climate change and warming oceans that affect their food sources.