Large whale entanglements represent only a portion of a global conservation dilemma: fisheries bycatch. Each year millions of invertebrates, fish, birds, turtles and mammals are caught in fishing gear intended for commercially valuable species of fish and shellfish. This incidental catch (or “take”) represents a wide diversity of species, many of which already face multiple threats from past and present hunting and habitat degradation. PCCS has been committed to understanding and solving this worldwide issue within a relatively small geographic area (the U.S. and Canadian East Coast). Lessons learned from this region may be used to inform conservation policies more globally.
PCCS has examined the problem of large whale bycatch through the long-standing disentanglement program and by participation in the federally mandated Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan. In 1996 NOAA-Fisheries invited PCCS to take part in the Take Reduction Team (TRT), composed of fishermen, scientists, conservationists and government agencies. It was established to work on the “plan to reduce injuries and deaths of large whales due to incidental entanglements in fishing gear” in fulfillment of the U.S. Endangered Species Act. PCCS brings a unique perspective to the TRT, by providing first-hand observations of entanglements and by sharing information gathered over two decades-worth of humpback and right whale research.
Members of the TRT meetings review recent entanglement cases, summarize recent whale research that may help understand entanglements and update all members on current gear modification research. Through consensus, the team presents recommendations to the ongoing Take Reduction Plan.
The key hope of the TRT is to reduce the opportunities for whales and fishing gear to interact – a preventative solution that is very different from disentanglement. Over the years the TRT has identified and implemented a number of different strategies to this end, including seasonal area management (removing or modifying gear from critical habitats during somewhat predictable seasonal shifts in right whale movements) and dynamic area management (removing or modifying gear wherever and whenever a right whale aggregation is identified). While both of these schemes have the potential to reduce entanglement possibilities, they can be limited by what is known about the movements of whales throughout the seasons and over years and by the realities of surveying vast areas of the ocean known to be used by whales.
Modifying fishing gear (such as gillnet and lobster gear), so that it reduces contact with whales and/or reduces the potential for serious injury when contacted, has been another route explored by the TRT. Combining what is known about entanglements and the expertise of the fishing community, the TRT has gathered a long list of potential gear modifications such as: weak links that may break under the strain of an entangled whale; gear set without buoys and buoy lines; audio pingers that alert whales to the presence of gear in the area; ropes that degrade when contacted by a whale; and many more. While coming up with a list of potential modifications has proven challenging, confidently testing the efficacy of modifications has been more so. Before implementing such changes, biologists and fishermen alike want some assurance that the modifications will help. In the end, long-term, population-wide monitoring of the scars produced by entanglements may be the only tool to measure success (see the PCCS humpback whale scar study).