Recently, a dead North Atlantic right whale was spotted off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina that appears to be a victim of entanglement – line can clearly be seen going through the mouth, wrapped through baleen, and extending along the body. The whale has been identified by the New England Aquarium as Patti, an adult male born in 1983 and seen most recently in April of this year, gear free. A video taken by shark enthusiasts provides a rare view of the whale and the entangling line, as well as several sharks scavenging on the carcass – a frustrating reminder that most entanglements are not reported or observed, as they are often lost to the ocean’s natural processes before anyone notices.
(Link to full video of dead, entangled right whale with clear shots of line through its mouth and trailing behind. Warning: contains GRAPHIC IMAGERY of shark scavenging on carcass. WATCH WITH CAUTION! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oBi-UE8_Ts8)
The entangling line passes through Patti’s mouth and baleen. Mouth entanglements can cause problems with swimming and feeding, which can lead to prolonged and painful deaths.
Due to the difficult location and rough surf in the area, the carcass has not been retrieved to undergo examination and a necropsy – which means the gear has not yet been collected and examined. Whale carcasses are all too rarely spotted and examined for a cause of death – they are more often lost at sea to the elements and scavenging, falling to the ocean bottom and taking all the information about how and where they became entangled with them.
While “Patti’ is clearly entangled, without a close examination of the line in his mouth and around his body, it is nearly impossible to determine what kind of fishery it was used in or where the gear was originally set. This line appears to lack any identifying trait or marking buoy, which also makes it very difficult to ID gear when it is retrieved from entanglements. Without closer inspection, it will remain an unknown.
Line is clearly floating in the water behind the head of a scavenging shark.
Being able to identify gear involved in entanglements is extremely important in developing policy measures to protect large whales. In the unfortunate event of an entangled whale, the best information we can get from it involves the gear – if we know where they are encountering rope and what kind of line they are most likely to get tangled up in, we can take measures to reduce the amount of that line in the water, or restrict specific areas when we know there is a high likelihood of a whale encountering gear. The ability to ID gear also helps us ascertain if the gear is a type compliant with current regulations or from an area that is exempted from current rules.
The death of “Patti” is a startling reminder of how important our work is as a federally appointed member of the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team. For the past month, our North American policy team has been reading the 700+ page “Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Amending the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan: Vertical Line Rule” (linked here if you care to tackle it yourself).
As currently proposed, the rule is inadequate. Not only is Maine’s 2008 exemption to the sinking groundline rule being applied to vertical line, but the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is proposing to exempt state waters off New Hampshire as well. This additional New Hampshire exemption would not only exclude them from the new vertical line regulations, but all rules implemented in the past – ones they should already be complying with! Unfortunately, without examining the line involved in this entanglement, we won’t know if it comes from an exempted area. We know entanglements are occurring in these areas, but because of poor gear marking requirements and the difficulties involved with recovering gear, we can’t say how often these incidents happen, and that makes it difficult to move forward in preventing them. The new gear marking requirements in the proposed rule are not comprehensive enough to differentiate between types of gear or where it was set – they would only provide a general idea of the gear’s region of origin.
NMFS’ preferred rule increases gear configuration requirements and seasonally restricts some areas where whales are highly likely to encounter gear, but it provides no reduction in vertical line in the mid-Atlantic or Southeast regions of the US East coast, including the area where Patti was found dead and entangled in fishing gear. Both right whales and humpbacks are known to use these areas seasonally, and records indicate multiple entanglements for both species in the mid-Atlantic and the Southeast, in addition to the entanglements occurring in the Northeast region. The Southeast is the mating and calving ground of right whales, and the newborns are highly susceptible to vertical line entanglement.
We are diligently working on writing our comments to NMFS to tell them that both humpback and right whales need more protection, but we also need your help. Please consider taking some time to write to NMFS and let them know you care about the continued survival of these endangered species!
Please tell NMFS that you agree Alternative 5 is preferable, HOWEVER:
- The waters off New Hampshire and Maine should NOT be exempted.
- Additional gear marking strategies must be included to differentiate gear types and regions.
- Gillnets should not be exempted from entanglement reduction strategies.
- A seasonal closure for black sea bass traps in the Southeast Restricted Area must be implemented to protect newborn critically endangered right whales.
Taking five minutes to share your comments with NMFS can give a lifetime of protection to these endangered whales.