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Could Software Save Endangered Whales from Extinction?

Dead North Atlantic Right whale off the coast of Long Island, New York.
NY Department of Environmental Conservation
Dead North Atlantic Right whale off the coast of Long Island, New York.

A group of international scientists are evaluating a new software tool that could help reduce the number of North Atlantic Right Whales dying from entanglement in rope and fishing gear. The tool weighs the relative risk of entanglement at different times of year, and in different places, against mitigation efforts.  

Ultimately, it could be used by fisheries managers to make decisions about gear modifications for lobster industry. 

The group met—and received public comments from leaders in the lobster industry—in Woods Hole over three days this week, wrapping up on Thursday.  

The new tool comes as part of the long-time effort to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale from fatal entanglements, which accounted for the majority of right whale deaths in United States waters from 2017 to 2019.

In Canadian waters, ship strikes are currently the highest cause of death for the whales.

“This group is looking for solutions to reduce mortality from entanglement,” said Julie van der Hoop, a member of the peer review group that will help evaluate whether the tool is ready for use by the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, which reports to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA).

“North Atlantic right whale mortality is higher than it should be,” van der Hoop said. “So this is a tool that can support decisions in how, as a fishery, I could potentially reduce the risk of [fatal] entanglement to whales.”

But leaders in the lobster industry say the data disproportionately impacts US fisheries, as opposed to Canadian fisheries, which pose equal—if not greater—risks to the whales.   

“The U.S. can implement all the measures it wants, but the whales don’t get the memo,” said Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association. “They transit into Canada.”

Casoni pointed out that the majority of entanglements in the last two years have occurred in Canadian waters.

“[Canadian officials are] working on it, but they needed to work on it like… yesterday,” she said.

Julie van der Hoop says a standardized data tool could guide fisheries’ managers to make better and more appropriate decisions about gear modification that would ultimately help the U.S. lobster industry.

“Historically, a lot of the gear modifications were hypothetical: ‘Well, we think that if we implement this, another thing should happen,’ but there was really no way to test the effect of that,” she said.

In two weeks, van der Hoop will and others will deliver reports on the tool, evaluating whether this version is ready to go, improvements are needed, or, as van der Hoop said, “if we really missed the mark.”  

This post has been modified from the orginal to clarify that entanglement accounts for the majority of right whale deaths in US waters from 2017-2019; in Canadian waters, ship strikes are currently the highest cause of death for the whales.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.