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Entanglement rope of North Atlantic right whale identified

On February 14th, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced it had identified the fishing gear associated with the chronic entanglement of the North Atlantic right whale, identified as #5120, who washed ashore on Martha's Vineyard at the end of January. Born in 2021 as the only known calf of Squilla, this whale was too young to be named and will only be known by her catalog number. According to NMFS, the preliminary necropsy results indicated the whale had suffered from a long-term entanglement in fishing gear. Based on the required gear markings on the rope, the agency identified the gear as Maine lobster gear. Enhanced gear marking requirements in Maine were put in place in September 2020.

The tragic accidental entanglement happened to #5120 in 2022 when she was only about a year and a half old. She most likely swam into the gear, panicked, and rolled into the rope, entangling her lower body. During the first eight years of a right whale's life, they experience 90% of their growth. As #5120's little body grew, it grew around the rope, embedding it into her tail stock. She likely spent the second half of her life in chronic pain and now will never know the excitement of migrating on her own or becoming a mother.

#5120 not entangled in July 2021 
© Gine Lonati, University of New Brunswick. Taken under DFO Canada Sara Permit
#5120 not entangled in July 2021 © Gine Lonati, University of New Brunswick. Taken under DFO Canada Sara Permit
#5120 newly entangled in August 2022 
© Fisheries and Oceans Canada Science Aerial Survey Team
#5120 newly entangled in August 2022 © Fisheries and Oceans Canada Science Aerial Survey Team

The ropes she became entangled in are called vertical lines and are legally required so fishermen can locate their fishing gear. Thanks to a new gear marking regulation that WDC and others helped develop, this gear was appropriately marked, allowing NMFS to identify where it came from. This information is crucial to understanding where and when whales are at risk, not to place blame on hard-working fishermen and women. 

We recognize that closing areas to fishing is not a viable long-term solution, but the world needs whales. They are the climate-giants of our planet, who are critical to the biodiversity of our ocean. At WDC, we support the testing of on-demand fishing gear which removes the dangers of static vertical lines, allowing whales and fisheries to safely use the same waters. As the gear is still being developed and tested, it is not cost-efficient for fishermen to purchase it on their own. Through grants and donations, WDC purchases equipment and sends it to a gear lending library, where any fisherman can borrow it for free. In exchange, the fishermen provide data and feedback to WDC and its partners to help improve the gear so that, one day, it will be mass-produced and available commercially. When this happens, fishermen will be allowed to fish in areas that are now closed because of the risk of entangling whales.

NOAA On-Demand_Fishing

WDC is entering its fifth season of gear testing. Since 2020, the number of successful hauls of on-demand gear has increased by more than 2700 percent! With a success rate of over 90 percent and nearly 200 units actively deployed, we continue to improve the efficiency and safety of this innovative gear. Over the next 2 years, WDC will work with the Conservation Law Foundation and Edge Tech, Inc to develop a Man Over Board release and alarm system that will improve the safety of this gear for widespread use. 

Unfortunately, since we started trialing on-demand gear in 2020, at least 30 North Atlantic right whales have died or been injured from known entanglements. With your help, we can change this story and give whales like #5120 a chance to live a full life. Help us rewhale the ocean by ending accidental entanglements. 

Together, let's create a legacy for #5120. Please consider donating to the 5120 fund to help us support our on-demand work to protect whales from becoming entangled, while allowing culturally and economically important fisheries to thrive.  

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  1. Margaret Julie Finch on 03/07/2024 at 3:56 pm

    thanks for this visual diagram of rope testing.

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