Fight for Your Rights

In the fight to save critically endangered North Atlantic right whales, new data is showing that entanglement in lobster gear is not only killing the whales, it’s making them more than three feet shorter on average than those born 30 to 40 years ago.

Entanglements in this population are common and have increased in the past few decades. Often gear attaches to the whales, causing severe injuries. It can also cause obstructions that prevent feeding. With lobster ropes and traps weighing them down, right whales expend extra energy just to do normal activities. “That is energy they might otherwise spend on growth or reproduction,” says Joshua Stewart of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This makes it harder to survive food shortages, and it could cause females to have fewer offspring, affecting population viability.

Major size impacts are documented in commercially exploited fish species, but it’s the first time these kinds of impacts have been recorded in a large mammal. The researchers used aerial photogrammetry measurements collected over 20 years. “This really makes me wonder about how all large whales are being impacted,” says Stewart. Entanglements are a major threat for marine species worldwide. 

The researchers are calling for stronger actions to reduce fishing gear impacts, and Defenders is lobbying Congress to establish a program to fund the development of technologies that reduce or eliminate the threats of entanglements, such as on-demand buoyless (also called ropeless) gear. The need is urgent—only about 350 right whales survive, and only about 70 are reproductive-age females.

Photo caption:

Rescuers attempt to cut away lobster fishing rope attached to the mouth of an endangered North Atlantic right whale off the coast of Georgia. 

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