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Scituate lobstermen help whales

Entanglement can be a problem for whales, such as this one breaching  in Stellwagen.

Jeff Frazier

Entanglement can be a problem for whales, such as this one breaching in Stellwagen.

The numerous storms and rough seas haven’t been difficult just for Scituate’s shores. For Scituate lobsterman, the boiling seas have left their lobster traps a scattered and tangled mess.

Though it may be easier to just cut their losses, local fisherman have banded together with the International Fund for Animal Welfare to take damaged equipment out of the water, saving whales that would otherwise become entangled in the debris.

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“We’re definitely pro-marine cleanup, any efforts on any level,” said Beth Casoni, associate director of the Scituate-based Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association. “We’ve been working with other organizations on that for a long time, and a few fisherman took the initiative to seek funds to remove more marine debris. It is an ongoing concern.”

The lobstermen’s association has worked with the IFAW in the past to help protect whales, using new types of line designed to break away if a whale gets caught. GPS location devices placed on whales are also addressing the threat of hitting ships.

Though those initiatives have been promoted by IFAW, this time around, the cleanup effort was the lobstermen’s idea.

“Stellwagen Bank had a sign at our dock [last fall] to recover lost gear, so my concept was, ‘Look, if you give us a hand, by giving us some fuel money, we can go out there and bring in the gear sooner, and rather than recover gear that’s lost, let’s recover it and get it taken care of,’ ” said Fred Dauphinee, a longtime lobsterman who works out of Scituate. “It’s worked out well for us.”

The lobstermen contacted the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary headquarters in Scituate, which then contacted the IFAW to receive the funds, resulting in a $3,000 pilot program grant to help pay for the work. The money covers the gasoline used to go out and collect the equipment.

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Since receiving the money, Dauphinee said he and four other lobstermen have gone out several times in recent weeks to collect trawls, or a series of traps connected horizontally by string on the ocean floor, then connected by one vertical tie to a buoy on the ocean surface.

Steven Whelan, who has been a lobsterman for 30 years, said his colleagues have a vague idea of where the buoys are, but that the rough winter seas tend to move many of them.

While crews are out looking for their traps, the lobstermen are simultaneously setting new gear down for the next batch.

According to Patrick Ramage, the whale program director for IFAW, the grant is a modest amount for how helpful the work will be.

“[The lines are] abandoned, left unattended for whatever reason, or in very serious storms, moved significantly. Over time there is an accrual of a lot of gear, and we’ve gotten reports. . . of a significant accumulation of ghost gear,” Ramage said. “[Lobstermen] aren’t interested in encountering it and having it entangled in their own lines, and it’s often deadly to endangered right whales swimming through the obstacle course.”

Ramage said the entanglement of whales is a big problem for the species. The National Marine Fisheries Service and numerous government agencies estimate that nearly 78 percent of whales get caught in the equipment within their lifetime.

Whales show scarring due to the entanglements and sometimes can drown, as the lines, attached to a slew of traps, make it difficult for the whales to move or come to the surface to breathe, migrate, breed, and feed.

“In severe cases, the line can wrap around part of the body and eat into the flesh of the animal,” Ramage said. “It becomes a very grave health and welfare threat to them.”

Though some may find the partnership between lobstermen and animal rights groups to be strange, Ramage said it has benefited both groups well.

“It seems like a win-win solution for us to be engaged with fishermen who know the water and know where this stuff is at,” Ramage said. “It’s a better and safer environment [for the whales] and also for the fishermen.”

Jessica Bartlett can be reached at jessica.may.bartlett@gmail.com.
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