NOAA – There are only about 400 North Atlantic right whales left and it is estimated that only 85 are reproductively active females. The survival and reproductive success of these remaining females and their offspring is critical to right whale recovery.
Female North Atlantic right whales are not living as long as they once did and more females than males have been reported dead in recent years. Today, females make up approximately 40 percent of the population. It is thought that the energetic stress of reproduction makes female right whales more susceptible than males to dying from entanglement or ship strike injuries.
Biologists also believe that injuries and stress caused by long-term entanglements is one of the reasons that females are calving less often. Studies suggest that more than 85 percent of North Atlantic right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once. About 60 percent have been entangled multiple times.
Reducing Entanglements and the Future of Ropeless Gear
NOAA and partners have tried different approaches to reduce threats to North Atlantic right whales.
“Currently, gear modifications and seasonal fishery closures help protect North Atlantic right whales,” said biologist Jessica Powell, an expert in marine mammal/fishery interactions at NOAA Fisheries’ Southeast Regional Office. “We have a number of different measures and fishery regulations to help reduce entanglement. For example, fishermen in the Southeastern United States who are fishing the ocean during calving season use lines with low breaking strength, so an entangled animal could hopefully break free. In the future, we’d love to see ropeless gear.”
Entanglement in fishing ropes attached to gillnets and traps on the ocean floor is one of the greatest threats to North Atlantic right whales. Becoming entangled in fishing gear can severely stress and injure a right whale. Being entangled slows down the whale, decreases its overall fitness, and can lead to a long and painful death.