Whale entanglement – a conversation with Bob Bowman

A slight deviation from the planned post… En route to Grand Manan, I stayed with a friend of Laurie’s called Bob Bowman. Bob is a whale-guy with a lifetime of cetacean experience in whale watching, research and disentanglement. He talked to me about a challenging issue connected to fisheries, government policy and whale entanglement, which I have decided to add here before continuing to write about Laurie.

Bob set the scene by talking about how best we can proceed with protecting this planet and its species. He believes that the question of whether we should play God at all is an irrelevant one. “We are already playing God. To talk about not playing God is denying the fact that that ship has already sailed. We are manipulating our planet, and we need to get good at it. We have no choice now but to actively participate, or else, through neglect, species will disappear.”

Bob believes that to implement appropriate laws to protect species, we must firstly understand them, which means carrying out effective research. It is difficult enough to manage species well, but if we do it without adequate knowledge of the consequences of our actions, we are setting ourselves up for disaster. Bob also believes that environmental policy must be based on science, not on social preferences. “Laws must first be informed by what we know and then tempered by our human needs, thereby balancing species health and diversity with economic and cultural requirements.”

When it comes to cetaceans, the task of understanding and protecting them is made additionally difficult; whales are complex creatures, they are difficult to study and they live in an alien world which we cannot inhabit. But there are some things we do know about them beyond reasonable doubt. “Whales are not suffering from today’s whaling, they are suffering from whaling carried out 150 years ago. Their recovery today is being slowed by our actions which are based on a greater love for ourselves than for them.”

And so we come to one of the problems which whales are facing today in their attempts to recover from our past mismanagement of them; entanglement. Entanglement is the term used for whales becoming entangled in fishing gear and marine debris. It may sound like a minor problem, but it is in fact an immense one. From studies carried out on the scaring marks on cetaceans, it is estimated that 15-20% of Gulf of Maine humpback and North Atlantic right whales become entangled annually, and that figure is based only the ones who survive. With a species such as the North Atlantic right Whale, where the estimated population is just 450-500 individuals, that is 100 whales a year. We do not know how many whales die as a result of entanglement because they generally die and sink far out to sea. This death is “A slow and painful one. They become emaciated and sick. They die of starvation and infection, over many weeks or months. For example, in 2001 a North Atlantic right whale nicknamed Churchill had fishing gear entangled tightly in its baleen and around its head. The wounds from the rope were infected and festering. The whale was tagged to allow us to track it and attempt a disentanglement. Ten return visits were made to the whale and many disentanglement attempts made with equipment that I and others designed especially for this case. The whale was tracked over 100 days and travelled more than 5,000 nautical miles in that time, looking in worse condition each time it was spotted. It was last seen in deep water moving very slowly at the surface. Then its signal stopped, most likely because it died and sank.”

This problem is “Much bigger than we first imagined. There is so much fishing gear in the waters off the coast of Maine; the fishing industry themselves do not even know how much gear there is. And we know from our data that we have not solved the problem, in fact it is probably getting worse.”

In 1993 and ’94 Bob worked in Maine with local lobster fishermen. Initially they did not believe a problem existed, frequently saying, “We have never seen an entangled whale”. This is no wonder, most entangled whales are never seen, and with the distances they travel, a whale entangled in Maine may only later be seen in, for example, Florida. Bob found the fishermen to be willing, honest and helpful. Once they witnessed an entangled whale, and the highly difficult and dangerous job of disentangling them, they were keen to become involved. Bob worked with them on the principle of this being a shared problem; whales entangled in their gear are detrimental to business, he had the knowledge which could alleviate the problem, but could only succeed with their assistance. The fishermen became part of the team; when an entangled whale was spotted, they would stand by with the whale until the trained disentangling team arrived, ensuring it did not just disappear never to be seen again.

This method was effective, but as Bob says, “It did not solve the problem. It was not dealing with the root cause, but merely saving one whale affected by the root cause”. So what is the root cause? In Bob’s opinion, it is a technological one. Lobster traps rely on a network of rope, both vertically up to the surface and horizontally connecting a series of traps. The traps themselves are highly inefficient, resulting in many traps being laid to catch the required number of lobsters. Whales become entangled in the vertical or horizontal ropes and, in their efforts to reach the surface and breathe, they have to either break the connection to the lobster traps or drag the traps along with them.

So who is looking at the root problem and how it can be solved? The government body NOAA (National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration) regulates all things marine related, and the stakeholders who input its policies include the fishing industry, conservationists and scientists. NOAA oversees both fishing interests and whale protection interests; the harvesters of our oceans, and the researchers and protectors of them. In an ideal world this would create “An equal playing field, where regulation comes from the negotiation of all stakeholders. This should be a good solution for everyone!” However, Bob believes that in practise NOAA suffers from a conflict of interests and a corruption of the system, “Certain stakeholders can influence politicians who in turn influence the regulators”.

When the Marine Mammal Protection Act was re-authorised in 1994, it was recognised that lobster fishing in Maine was a cause of mortality in whales. A timeline and process was established by NOAA to eliminate mortality and serious injury to whales caused by entanglement in gear from the lobster and gill-net fishing industries. This process was called the ‘Take Reduction Plan’ and was to be phased in over seven years, with 2001 set as the deadline for success.

The Take Reduction Plan included strategy meetings with all stakeholders; fishery representatives, regulators, scientists and conservationists. This was not an easy management task, especially when in Bob’s opinion, “Over half the people present were not there to solve the problem of how to protect whales”. If the group could achieve a consensus on a proposal, the government had to take this into account when implementing policies. If the group could not achieve consensus, NOAA was free to legislate however it saw fit… It was rare for the group to achieve consensus.

As Bob describes it, in the years following 1994 lawsuits were filed against the government for failing to uphold the 1994 Act. Without a consensual agreement on what actions might best solve the problem, NOAA responded with a series of “Ineffectual regulations which were not designed to be effective, but designed because there was a timeline for the lawsuits. Take Reduction meetings were run by lawyers. There was no transparency, co-operation was lost. When, for example, the Humane Society began a lawsuit, they set off a chain reaction for more ineffectual regulations designed to convince a judge that enough was being done on the matter.”

For example, one measure which has been introduced is ‘time/sea closures’. This requires that an area which has historically had a high prevalence of whales is closed to fishing for a certain period of time. Bob says, “The data on where whales are does not stay the same on a year to year basis. More importantly, whales do not stay in one area for a whole period. They come in and out of an area. Closing an area does not reduce the amount of gear, it just produces a higher density of gear in the surrounding areas, some call it a fence. These are the areas which whales have to travel through to enter and leave the closed area. For example, one entangled whale was recorded moving in and out of a closed area over thirty times!”

As far as Bob is concerned, since the mid-nineties little has been achieved. The government’s own deadline of 2001 has been and gone with no decrease in the scale of the problem. The results which Bob has witnessed are a breakdown in communication and the polarising of stakeholders. Fishermen who once worked with him on disentanglement have told him they will no longer help. Every reported entangled whale might mean a new lawsuit, which would mean new legislation, which would mean increased costs and workload for the fishermen.

Bob himself has stopped working with disentanglement in America. He thinks that the degree of emphasis given to disentanglement is used as a distraction, and he does not want to be complicit in this deception. The government and the fishing industry relies on disentanglement as a solution, it is now part of the Take Reduction’s strategy. “So much publicity is given to disentanglement – ‘look we freed a whale!’ – when the reality is that there is probably only a 3% reporting rate. The majority of whales either die or disentangle themselves and suffer associated injuries.”

Bob says, “We should no longer be talking about ‘reducing take’, we should have eliminated take completely by now! It should not be that hard, it is not rocket science!”

Bob sees the way forward to be developing technology. “Everyone talks about rope all the time… But the main problem is the ineffectiveness of traps. If they were 90% effective rather than 10%, less traps and consequently less rope would be needed. And if the government funded the research and design of traps which did not require rope being left in the water at all, the problem would be gone completely.” He also believes the matter needs a bottom-up rather than top-down organisational structure to encourage co-operation and transparency between all stakeholders.

Bob’s perspective is certainly not the only one concerning this matter. A fisherman, conservationist and NOAA employee may tell very different versions of events. But this is probably the point… Surely, only when all sides to a situation are heard, with mutual respect given to all parties, can a way forward be found with any integrity. It may be that during the next few weeks I will learn about Laurie’s views and those of other people on Grand Manan. If I do, I will gladly write about them.

We shall see over the coming month…

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