David Abel sees a clear solution to the human threat posed to North Atlantic right whales, involving an overhaul of rope-based lobster fishing methods off New England and Atlantic Canada.
Boston Globe reporter and documentary maker, along with producer Andy Laub, presented the vision for the film “Entangled” released this week. It depicts tensions between environmentalists, regulators and lobster fishermen in 2019 as the whale appeared to be on the verge of potential extinction.
Warming waters in the northeast Atlantic have put whales on a collision course with fishing gear in lobster and crab areas, as well as bringing animals into shipping lanes where the collisions with ships are more likely, notes the documentary.
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The threats created challenges for the National Marine Fisheries Service in the United States and the Federal Department of Fisheries, as they struggled to balance the competing interests of an endangered species with the need to preserve a primary fishery coastal communities in northeastern North America. .
The film argues that the problem is how to deal with the hundreds of thousands of vertical fishing lines used to mark the spot where lobster traps – called “trawls” – are set up, without damaging the livelihoods of small-scale fishermen. ladder.
“Cordless fishing is the future,” Abel said in an interview last week from his home in Boston, referring to various technologies that remove the vertical lines from setting and retrieving traps.
The film opens and is interspersed with moving images taken above and alongside the whales, as the majestic and curious mammal appears to revel in its ocean environment.
“The right whale is one of the wonders of the living world, but if something in our management doesn’t change, the population direction points to zero, and it’s extinction,” Scott Kraus, chief scientist at the New England Aquarium, said during the documentary.
Kraus and others argue that with an estimated population of less than 400 animals, only one death per year is expected to occur from human causes – a figure that until 2020 has been exceeded every year for two decades.
The 74-minute documentary uses computer animation of the New England Aquarium to help the viewer visualize a whale grabbing the vertical lines, spinning and becoming more entangled with the next line.
The thick lines that tear their bodies apart can sometimes mean a slow death sentence that lasts up to six months.
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In response, a three-month annual closure of Cape Cod Bay to lobster fishermen began in 2015, along with widespread closures of fishing grounds in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada.
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“It hit, it hit hard. I had college payments to make, mortgage payments. It seemed to get more and more difficult every year… I don’t want to see any more closures, I want to see scientists and fishermen working together, ”Rob Martin, a lobster fisherman from Massachusetts, told documentary filmmakers.
Abel said in an interview that one of the most promising solutions to the problem could be advances in fishing gear, where the location of the trawl is marked by acoustic signals and various technologies are used to lift the first trap from the bottom. from the ocean during recovery.
He said that in Massachusetts, where some fishing areas are closed from February to May, new regulations are coming that will allow fishermen to experiment with the gear.
Towards the end of the documentary, viewers see a system in development as Richard Riels, founder of the Sea Mammal Education Learning Technology Society, or SMELTS, invites reporters to his studio in Washington state.
He created a wireless lobster trap system where an underwater signal is tuned to signal the position of the trap. When the fisherman returns, an inflation system is used to bring him back to the surface.
“The technology is there. If we can afford it, we don’t know. Can we build enough to affect the global industry? It’s a big challenge, ”said Riels.
In Canada, systems for closing lobster and crab fishing grounds are currently maintaining entanglement mortality rates. Data from the federal Department of Fisheries shows that no North Atlantic right whales were killed and no new entanglements were reported in Canadian waters in 2020 or as of June 18, 2021.
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The department is shutting down fishing areas when their detection systems spot whales, with seasonal closures on 11,559 square kilometers and temporary closures on about 11,000 square kilometers this year, department spokesman Barre Campbell wrote in a report. E-mail.
Meanwhile, Campbell said the department was open to industry expanding its testing of cordless gear into closed areas this year.
Ross Arsenault, co-founder of Halifax-based Ashored Ltd., worked with his team to create a buoy that goes underwater with the traps, with a retrieval system that floats it on the surface when it’s time to reassemble the plug.
He runs pilot projects with fishermen in the area and said costs drop rapidly as innovations are developed.
Arsenault said the goal is to have gear that will be profitable for fishermen “in a few years”, in part because of the reduction in gear loss through the tracking system.
However, he said federal financial encouragement and regulation will be key.
“It’s up to the government. How quickly do they want to implement it on a large scale? How fast do they want to be active to prevent tangles? “
Campbell said the Fisheries Department has yet to set a target or cap for increasing the number of cordless traps that may be permitted.
“Any increase in the number of cordless traps will be largely based on the industry’s interest, experience and ease of use of this type of gear, in order to ensure its safety,” he wrote.
The spokesperson noted that industry can submit cordless gear proposals to the Atlantic Fisheries Fund, a contribution program funded by the federal and provincial governments.
Abel’s documentary features a number of scientists who argue that government encouragement for cordless equipment cannot come too soon.
“Climate change is muddying the equation and as the planet warms we are going to have more conflicts over how to protect species while protecting vital industrial and commercial enterprises,” the filmmaker said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on June 20, 2021.
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