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A right whale, such as the one shown in this file photo, is three metres thick from top to bottom. IMAGE FILE/CANADIAN WHALE INSTITUTE

Scientists doing what they can to help save the whales
Conservation Three quarters of the 400 north Atlantic right whales have been scarred from tangles with fishing gear

DERWIN GOWAN
TELEGRAPH-JOURNAL
OCT 12/09

   ST. STEPHEN - Scientists need to know more to help fishermen make the Bay of Fundy safe for whales, Sean W. Brillant and Edward A. Trippel say.
   The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea's Journal of Marine Science recently published the results of its research last year on the threat that "groundlines"-the ropes linking trawls or strings of lobster traps on the seafloor -pose to north Atlantic right whales.
   A full three quarters of the 400 remaining north Atlantic right whales bear scars from tangles with fishing gear, Moira Brown, a senior scientist at the New England Aquarium in Boston, said.
   In summer, Brown works at Lubec, Me., researching right whales. Even in the offseason she travels regularly to Campobello Island.
   She supports the Campobello Whale Rescue Team. These volunteer fishermen know the water, tide and weather as well as fishing gear in the Bay of Fundy.
   The team distributes waterproof stickers for captains to affix to their wheelhouses with the toll-free number to call if they see a tangled whale: 1-866-567-6277, or advise the Canadian Coast Guard on 2182kHz or VHF 16, or Fundy Traffic VHF 14.
   "We have horizontal; and vertical lines in the water. All of it poses a threat to entanglement; Brown said.
   "Some of the whales get out of the gear themselves. Some of them carry it around for years with no apparent effect," she said.
   Other times rope wrapped several times around a flipper, for example, can cause a persistent infection. Wrapped around their mouths, it can interfere with feeding. In all scenarios the whales can die.
   Cutting free a whale with fishing gear wrapped around a flipper is not for the faint of heart. "It's like a dentist doing a root canal on somebody running down the street," Brown said.
   The right whales, especially came back from the brink if extinction, numbering probably "in the tens" in the early 20th century, Brown said.
   In federally controlled American water off the coast of Maine, new rules require lobster fishermen to tie their traps together with rope that sinks, Brown said. Line that lies on the bottom of the bay will less likely form a dangerous loop to snag a deep diving whale, she said. In state controlled Maine water, as well as on the Canadian side of the bay, fishermen still use floating rope, she said.
   The winter lobster fishery in Canadian waters does not overlap with the right whales' summer sojourn to the Bay of Fundy as much as does Maine's yearround fishery, Brown said.
   The whales normally leave by the end of December, but last year some appeared off Dipper Harbour - close to shore in lobster fishing water, she said.
   A floating line will last longer and less likely break because it does not chafe as much on the bottom as does a sinking line, Brillant and Trippel say in their paper.
   However, with any slack in the line linking two traps, floating rope will rise to form a loop not good for whales.
   Brillant, a World Wildlife Fund post-doctoral fellow at Dalhousie University, and Trippel, a researcher in St. Andrews with the federal Fisheries and Oceans Department, did their research with commercial fishermen at the mouth of St. Mary's Bay, N.S., in March and May, 2008, and west of Grand Marian in July, 2008.
   "I guess what we wanted to do is lay out the facts,'' Brillant said in an interview in St. Andrews where he and Trippel attended a conference.
   "Finding whale- and porpoise-safe fishing gear is something I've been studying since the 1990s,''Trippel said.
   In St. Mary's Bay and off Grand Marian they attached sensors to groundlines to tell how far they rose from the seafloor.
   The groundlines made of floating rope rose by an average of 1.6 metres. The instruments indicated that the groundlines rose less than a metre for 32 per cent of the readings, less than three metres for 92 per cent of the readings. The instrument recorded the highest elevation at seven metres.
   Groundlines made of sinking rope did not rise above 40 centimetres. The average was 20 centimetres, Brillant and Trippel report.
   They chose three metres as the point where a loop of rope at the bottom of the bay might threaten a right whale. Brown is not sure she agrees.

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