Episode 13: Up Against the Ropes

The “Save the Whales” movement of the 1970’s was instrumental in putting a stop to commercial whaling. But even as humpbacks and other whale populations have bounced back, one species is still up against the ropes. Literally. In this story, Sam tackles the problem of whale entanglement - and discovers that proposed solutions include crossbows, Australian lobsters, and Chinese finger traps.

A little while ago, here in New Hampshire, this crazy thing happened.

A dead humpback whale washed up onto our shores, in the little town of Rye. The last time something like this had happened was more than a decade ago, in the year 2000.  

People flocked to see it. Once news of the whale had spread, cars were parked on both sides of the street and traffic on the narrow, two-lane coastal road was backed up for miles.

Panoramic hill

“Last night there were thousands of people coming to Rye. That’s not an exaggeration, there were thousands of people,” said Tony Lacasse, a spokesman for the New England Aquarium, which was involved in disposing of the carcass, “I’m from New Hampshire originally and I was asking people where they were coming from and they were coming from Kingston and Farmington and Lee, they were 25, 30, 40 miles away.”

The crowds came despite the overpowering, thought-destroying stink of the decomposing whale. She was an adult in the prime of her life and her flukes of her massive tail had to push around a full 40 tons of whale body. No one knew exactly how long she had been dead, but her body spent three days on the beach, and had been spotted floating on the water a week before.

“With six or eight inches of blubber and no cooling system on-board, it essentially was an oven for a few days and a lot of tissue for a few days and a lot of the tissue is quite deteriorated,” explained Lacasse.

So here’s the scene: there’s 40 tons of stinking, rotting meat being carved up into gooey chunks by ocean scientists who are trying to determine what killed this whale, but despite that gorey process, hundreds of people are gathered to watch.

Whales - even a dead whale, rotting, stinking, cut into bits on a beach - capture something in our imagination.

Whales in ropes

A lot of species are recovering. For instance, most populations of humpbacks are being considered for delisting as an endangered species.

But then there’s the North Atlantic right whale -- a whale that got its name because in the whaling era it was known as the “right whale to kill”. Right whales are are slow swimmers and, because of their copious amounts of blubber, they float to the surface after they’ve been harpooned.  The right whale hasn’t bounced back. There are less than 500 of them in the wild today and they are thought to be “functionally extinct” in the European Atlantic.

But these days it’s not hunters and harpoons killing these whales... it’s ropes. Millions of ropes.

Whales sometimes get tangled up in fishing gear. And by sometimes, I mean a lot. By looking at their scars, scientists have estimated that 83 percent of right whales get tangled up in fishing gear at some point in their life. For humpbacks it’s not as bad, but still more than half get entangled.

And in recent years, those entanglements have been getting worse. Amy Knowlton, a scientist with the New England Aquarium started to notice that more whales were getting “severe” entanglements, “meaning that it could compromise their ability to feed or swim and it’s going to eventually lead to their death.”

She set to work trying to track down the reason, and now believes they can tie the increase to a change in rope manufacturing that occurred in the mid 1990s, when rope manufacturers began to make a much stronger rope.

All of a sudden whales were hitting ropes just like before, but they’re weren’t able to break free.

Wart the whale

So what can be done?

One answer, which might seem easy and obvious, is to simply cut whales free when they get tangled. (You’ve perhaps heard a public radio story about this very feat.)  In fact, there is an entire network of teams whose only job is to respond to calls about whales and sea turtles tangled in fishing gear.

When these teams get the call their first order of business is to slow the whale down. To do this, paradoxically, they attach more ropes and buoys to the whale. Their goal is to get the whale to think, boy, this is a lot of work, I’m gonna just stop swimming. And that works really well on humpback whales -- but not on right whales.

“There’s nothing that’s enough to stop a right whale,” says Scott Landry, the director of the Animal Entanglement Response team in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Right whales are filter feeders, “So they’re designed to swim through the water with their mouths open for hour after hour after hour. They’re like a freight train.  And so trying to slow the freight train down is really hard.”

This means that Landry’s team is successful 90 percent of the time when they try to disentangle humpback whales, but only manage to free around 60 percent of entangled right whales.

The unique challenges of freeing right whales has led these teams to invent their own specialized disentanglement tools: sharp knives attached to painters’ poles, cutting grapples (basically a ball of knives) that are pulled through trailing fishing gear, and even crossbows fitted with rope-cutting arrowheads (initially meant as a turkey decapitating arrow).

The crossbow method was first used in 2010 to save Wart, one of the most iconic whales on the Atlantic coast, who survived to have another calf. Landry had only a few seconds to make the shot, while standing on an inflatable boat out in the open ocean.

“It was very lucky. And also it was a lot of practice,” he says modestly, even going so far as to decline to acknowledge that he himself made the shot. “We work as a team so, if you think about it the person who got the boat in the right position was working just as hard as the person working the crossbow.”

But cutting individual whales free, one at a time, is not going to solve this problem.

From treating symptoms to preventing disease

Each year Scott says he cuts between 7 and 15 humpback whales free from ropes. Meanwhile, scientists have estimated that in the Gulf of Maine somewhere between 10 and 15 percent -- perhaps as many as 150 whales -- get entangled each year.

a Marine animal entanglement response team (maer) working to disentangle the humpback whale "foggy" off the coast of gloucester, massachusetts, on may 18, 2016 (ccs image, noaa permit #18786). 

a Marine animal entanglement response team (maer) working to disentangle the humpback whale "foggy" off the coast of gloucester, massachusetts, on may 18, 2016 (ccs image, noaa permit #18786). 

That’s why Tim Werner, Director of the Consortium for Wildlife Bycatch Reduction, is annoyed whenever he sees  news coverage of whales being cut free from ropes.

“Oh isn’t that nice. We went out and freed that rope off that animal,” Werner jokes, “And we’re saving whales… Hip hip hooray for us.”

New England is ground zero for the problem of whale entanglement.

Just in the state of Maine, depending on the year, there’s somewhere between four and six-thousand commercial lobsterman. Each of them has a maximum of 800 traps. This means without even counting mooring buoys, eelpot buoys or gillnets, there are literally millions of ropes that whales have to avoid along the Maine coast.

“Now you have to visualize yourself as a massive whale, this gargantuan animal trying to swim through this tangled web of ropes, it’s just like… what was that game?  Operation?” says Werner, “Where you try to pull out the bone without hitting the edge, and the red nose would go MEH!”

Solutions

Scientists and fishers -- which is, by the way, the “woke” term for fishermen -- from all over the world are working on the entanglement problem gathered in New Hampshire a few months back in a dark hotel ballroom to share what they have learned.

Their projects ranged from experiments with whale alarms (short version: humpbacks don’t seem to care about loud noises) to experiments with rope color (short version: right whales see red and orange ropes best). There was even a study that entailed researchers affixing a giant replica of a whale fin to the side of a boat, and ramming it into the ropes kept variously taut or slack.

The two ideas that seemed to attract the most attention from the gathered scientists, though, were ropeless fishing and weak links in ropes.

Scott Westley, a lobster fisherman from New South Wales Australia, is the international ambassador for ropeless fishing. Over the course of two months, repetitive theft of his traps cost him something on the order of $100,000. So, Westley went looking for a way to hide his lobster traps. He settled on a system that allowed him to sink his ropes and buoys to the sea floor, and use an acoustic signal -- the same technology that your car’s key fob uses to unlock your doors -- to release the float when he’s ready to collect the traps.

"wart" the right whale (ccs image, noaa permit #932-1905)

"wart" the right whale (ccs image, noaa permit #932-1905)

However, at the seminar Westley didn’t seem to think this was a solution that would work in New England. He says rock lobsters in Australia are gregarious, “so getting the first couple in is the hard bit, and then from there on they want to be with all their friends.” This means he fishes with large traps that he leaves down for months at a time. New England lobsters are wary of one-another and so here lobsterman fish hundreds of smaller traps, that only capture a few lobsters at a time.

“It’s chalk and cheese that way,” says Westley.

The breakaway ropes idea was inspired by Amy Knowlton’s research that found the stronger ropes were making entanglements worse. Fishers in Cape Cod Bay took that information and proposed using a sleeve, which works similarly to a chinese finger trap, to connect two “bitter ends” of rope (yes, that’s where that term comes from). This allows fishermen to retrofit their existing rope with weak links that break away if a whale gets entangled.

New England is excited about this idea at least. Massachusetts recently announced $180,000 in funding to test out this idea.

More challenges to come

When I was talking to Tim Werner I asked him if he actually thinks it’s possible for vertical ropes in the water to coexist with whales. And in response he rattled off a list of all the reasons the problem would likely soon be getting worse -- a lot of buzz around a new design for off-shore mussel farms and the push to moor floating wind-turbines out in the ocean, for instance.

I pointed out to him that he had just listed new challenges and not solutions and he laughed.

“Yeah, how about that logic?” he said, before pointing out that some of the solutions that aren’t feasible today might help with these future challenges.

If you ask me, I think that if this problem of whale entanglement does indeed worsen, that might be enough of a catalyst to spur the public into action. This is a species that the public actually rallies behind.

Last week in Rye, New Hampshire thousands of people came to see the stinky, half-dissected carcass of a humpback whale. People are willing to pay to sit on the cold, windy deck of a whale watching boat, just on the off chance that they might see one of these animals. We have entire networks of guys all up and down the east coast, who are trained to jump into boats and shoot the ropes off these entangled animals with rope-cutting crossbows as soon as they get they get the call.

I’m pretty sure, this is a species that when push comes to shove, people are going to be willing to pull out all of the stops to protect.

They’re just not quite sure how, yet.

Outside/In was produced this week by: 

Sam Evans-Brown, Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez, & Logan Shannon

Theme music by Breakmaster Cylinder 

Photos of Sam are by Greta Rybus unless otherwise noted.