The 45-foot creature might not notice when the rope first snags its mouth, its tail, or a flipper. But when it realizes what has happened, the whale will panic, thrashing and spinning underwater. This is the critical moment: Will it break the rope and swim free?
For the North Atlantic right whale, the answer most often is no.
In an effort to aid the endangered animal, the state is awarding $180,000 to the New England Aquarium to help develop whale-friendly fishing ropes that would help save them from entrapment and often painful deaths.
On Thursday, Massachusetts’ energy and environmental affairs secretary, Matthew Beaton, held a news conference outside the aquarium to announce the Baker administration’s support for the aquarium’s work, which emphasizes saving the dwindling North Atlantic right whale population.
Scientists say 83 percent of right whales show evidence — usually deep scars or unnaturally arched backs — of having been entangled in fishing rope, which over the past 20 years has been manufactured to be stronger.
Researchers at the aquarium are trying to create ropes that whales would be able to break if they are entangled. Beaton said the ropes would be “workable for the industry and could minimize the severity of whale entanglements.”
The ropes that scientists at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, the aquarium’s research arm, hope to make would be far weaker than the current industry standard. The goal is to find a sweet spot where the rope is strong enough for fishermen to use in deep water but weak enough for whales to break, said an aquarium research scientist, Amy Knowlton.
Most ropes used by fishermen break at about 3,000 pounds of pressure, Knowlton said. The aquarium’s scientists aim to develop ropes with a breaking point of less than 1,700 pounds — the point at which a young right whale could break free.
North Atlantic right whales are of particular concern as their population hovers around 500, according to scientists’ estimates.
The number that have been entangled has risen since the mid-1990s, which was about the time the industry began using vastly stronger ropes, Knowlton said.
The ropes fishermen use today have the advantage of greater durability but are unnecessarily strong, Knowlton said.
“To do their fishing operations, I don’t think they need nearly as much rope strength as they’re using,” she said.
The South Shore Lobstermen’s Association has also been trying to address the problem, with help from the rope company Novabraid, said the association’s president, John Haviland.
Together, they have developed the “South Shore sleeve,” which resembles a large Chinese finger trap and connects two pieces of rope. The sleeve, which is in testing, has a much lower breaking point and can be used on rope that fishermen already own, Haviland said at the news conference.
Michael Lane, a commercial lobsterman, said he’s been attaching his traps to rope outfitted with the sleeves (one sleeve for every 40 feet of rope) for a year and hasn’t had any problems. The sleeved ropes function just like the ropes he used to use, he said.
“Nothing has changed,” he said, speaking from his fishing boat docked near the aquarium. “There has been no change in my operation.”
To support further field testing of the sleeves, the state also awarded the lobstermen’s group a $19,000 grant Thursday.
“We in the commercial lobster industry are committed to using the best available science to coexist with the North Atlantic right whale,” said John Haviland, president of the association, said in a statement.
Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, also endorsed further research into rope technology. Casoni said she looks forward to partnering with the aquarium and its researchers.
State Representative Jim Cantwell, a Democrat who represents Marshfield and Scituate, which are among the state’s most productive fishing ports, said funding such research benefits everyone.
“We’re all on the same side,” he said at the news conference. “The whales don’t want to have entanglements, and the fishermen don’t want to have entanglements.”