Fishermen pitch in to help endangered whales

Posted: Friday, October 07, 2005

ANCHORAGE — Alaska’s commercial fishing fleet is joining in an effort to save the world’s most endangered whales.

Until recently, it was believed that the North Pacific right whale was headed toward certain extinction but more animals than expected were found last summer in the Bering Sea, lending hope they can be saved.

Even so, there are likely fewer than 100 North Pacific right whales.

The animals share the Bering Sea with the largest commercial fishery in the U.S.

Now, the Marine Conservation Alliance — a coalition of commercial fishermen, seafood processors and coastal communities — is working with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration to make mariners more aware of the vulnerable whales. They’ve come up with a two-page laminated guide suitable for posting on a boat’s bridge.

‘‘The population of right whales in the eastern North Pacific is so critical that anything we can do to promote the recovery of this population is urgently needed,’’ said Doug DeMaster, head of NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center.

The initiative was announced this week at the meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in Anchorage.

Five-thousand North Pacific Right Whale Guides will be printed next week and delivered to at least 2,000 boats in the Alaska fishing fleet. Copies also will be translated into Russian, and perhaps Japanese, to provide information to those fishing fleets as well.

The guide describes the whales and includes charts of all sightings since 1941. Recently the whales have been seen at their summer feeding grounds in the Bering Sea and off Kodiak Island.

The guide provides fishing vessel captains with a list of ‘‘dos and don’ts.’’

The ‘‘do’’ list says captains should actively look for whale. If one is sighted, captains should keep their vessels 100 yards away. The ‘‘don’t’’ list includes the recommendation that captains not place their ships in the path of — or even near — oncoming right whales, which are described as slow swimmers that sometimes feed at or near the surface.

‘‘They show little or no instinct to avoid vessels and are vulnerable to ship strikes,’’ the guide says. ‘‘They also tend to roll when they meet an obstacle, which may result in gear entanglement.’’

To date, there have been no reports of fishing vessels striking the whales or getting entangled in gear.

David Benton, executive director of the alliance, said the coalition wanted to take a pro-active approach.

‘‘We do know these animals are at very low levels. Because of that we want to make sure we aren’t causing any problems,’’ he said.

The guide encourages fishing vessels to avoid setting gear of any type close to the whales.

It asks commercial fishermen to log the time and location of any whale sightings and immediately notify the federal fisheries observer if one is on the vessel. If there is no observer, the guide recommends photographing the whale to confirm the sighting and sending a report to NOAA in Seattle.

Mariners should also notify any other boats in the area to stay away once a whale is sighted. If the whale approaches the boat, the guide says the captain should put the boat’s engine in neutral and allow the whale to pass.

‘‘It certainly makes the fishing industry more aware of the plight of right whales and the potential of these animals to get tangled up in gear,’’ said Phil Clapham with the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle.

Until recently, experts believed the whales, which grow to about 60 feet and weigh an average of 50 tons, were headed to extinction. That assessment changed just last summer when 25 right whales were spotted in the Bering Sea, twice as many as previously seen.

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