10/16/2012 12:38 pm ET | Updated Dec 16, 2012

Fishing Gear vs. Whales

Case 11, a North Atlantic right whale that stranded on Wreck Island, Va., died a slow and painful death. Fishing line had entwined the baleen on the left side of her mouth. Two lines stretched from there across her blowhole, then wrapped tightly around the left flipper.

The lines carved gashes across the blowhole and cut deeper into the flipper with every movement. This whale clearly had great difficulty moving, restricting her ability to catch food, and she struggled to eat due to the lines in her mouth. Based on multiple sightings, we know that Case 11 was entangled for at least 200 days, and perhaps nearly 500, before dying.

Lethal entanglements like this one are the extreme of a widespread, persistent problem. Endangered North Atlantic right whales have been highly studied and monitored, and analysis of sightings and photographs shows that between 1980 and 2009 at least 83 percent of 626 individuals became entangled at least once. Even when whales are eventually able to free themselves or are freed by humans, entanglement has high cost in terms of energy, stress, pain and perhaps reproduction. Entanglement likely represents one of the main reasons North Atlantic right whales remain endangered.

Entangled whales may drown, a process that presumably includes struggling and panic. But many large whales survive the initial event. The injuries and restriction of these chronic entanglements cause suffering that often appears to be extreme. Scientists place whales and dolphins high on a scale of sensibility to pain and suffering. They're as sentient and intelligent as primates. The Marine Mammal Protection Act requires humane treatment, meaning that our actions must cause the least possible degree of pain and suffering practicable. In addition, humans have an obligation to consider the welfare of wild animals, most of which are under human influence, as much as we do that of domesticated ones.

Imagine passing a field every day and seeing cattle entangled in ropes that made it difficult or impossible for them to walk or graze. Or watching a stray dog, its head and body wrapped in ropes that cut into the flesh, restricting its movement and ability to eat. Few of us would stand idly by as these animals grew thinner and thinner, suffering, taking months to die. Yet such gruesome scenarios play out in the ocean, unseen -- until an emaciated, wounded whale washes up onto the beach, dead.

Right whales and humpbacks appear to frequently become entangled in fixed-gear fisheries, such as lobster pot gear. At the height of lobster season, close to 1 million vertical lines lurk in the waters off Maine, and models suggest that right whales encounter such lines about 2,500 times a year. I'm not suggesting that we boycott lobster, but I believe we must do something about the pain, suffering and death of whales that this gear currently causes. Regulatory efforts to mitigate the problem, primarily gear modification, don't appear to have helped much. Fishermen are understandably frustrated at putting forth extra expense and effort without results.

As the governing body of fisheries in the U.S., the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has recently closed two fishing specific regions where whales tend to aggregate. It has been suggested that NOAA allow lobster fishing in these whale-frequented areas, if the methods used don't involve rope in the water column. This would challenge the industry to develop affordable, rope-free systems in return for access to closed fishing grounds.

It is virtually certain, according to my colleague Hauke Kite-Powell, that whale and lobster-gear encounters concentrate in geographic and temporal hot spots. He and his collaborators have gathered additional data on right whale movements and lobster fishing to create a model for where and when entanglement risk is highest. Avoiding fishing in those hot spots would be most effective at protecting whales and least burdensome to fishermen. NOAA also could hold off on proposed regulatory changes until we have this model.

Finally, consumers must demand humane treatment of whales, as they have for other animals, insisting that regulators and the industry do all they can to avoid inducing the kind of suffering Case 11 endured. If individuals, markets and restaurants make it known that we prefer to buy only lobster caught in a whale-friendly manner -- without using vertical rope -- the industry will provide it.