whales in a TAN­GLE

Sim­u­la­tor helps the experts un­der­stand how a gi­ant mam­mal on the brink of ex­tinc­tion gets caught in fish­ing lines

Whangarei Report - - ENVIRONMENT -

Anew sim­u­la­tor is let­ting sci­en­tists use a joy­stick to swim a vir­tual whale across a video screen. But this is no game — it’s a se­ri­ous at­tempt to bet­ter un­der­stand how the gi­ant mam­mals be­come en­tan­gled in fish­ing lines.

Tim Werner, a se­nior sci­en­tist at the New Eng­land Aquar­ium’s An­der­son Cabot Cen­tre for Ocean Life, hopes the tech­nol­ogy will lead to safer fish­ing gear de­signs and help crit­i­cally en­dan­gered North At­lantic right whales avoid the loom­ing threat of ex­tinc­tion.

“If we can see how they get en­tan­gled, it would help us pre­vent it. The tech­nol­ogy in com­put­ers has evolved to a state where we can model these things,” he said.

More than eight in 10 crit­i­cally en­dan­gered right whales be­come en­snared by fish­ing lines, and nearly six in 10 are en­tan­gled more than once.

En­tan­gle­ments are a lead­ing cause of right whale deaths. Experts es­ti­mate there are no more than 440 an­i­mals left on the planet, and the species’ fu­ture is bleak be­cause of heavy mor­tal­ity and poor re­pro­duc­tion in re­cent years.

Werner says the video sim­u­la­tion has helped his team bet­ter un­der­stand how whales un­wit­tingly — and of­ten lethally — wrap them­selves in the fish­ing buoy lines that hang ver­ti­cally in the ocean.

Marine bi­ol­o­gists say en­tan­gled whales of­ten can’t feed, and the stress weak­ens them and makes fe­males less likely to birth calves. This past sea­son, not a sin­gle new birth was dis­cov­ered.

Aquar­ium sci­en­tists, work­ing with re­searchers at Duke Uni­ver­sity, pub­lished their find­ings this week in the jour­nal Marine Mam­mal Sci­ence, de­scrib­ing how they’re us­ing a stan­dard video game con­sole to “swim” a com­puter-gen­er­ated whale through heav­ily fished wa­ters to recre­ate an en­tan­gle­ment.

The sim­u­la­tor shows how a whale might flinch as it strikes a rope, then in­stinc­tively corkscrew and roll — end­ing up with the line hope­lessly wrapped around its body and flip­pers.

It also lets re­searchers re­verse the sim­u­lated en­tan­gle­ment. Vikki Spruill, the aquar­ium’s pres­i­dent and CEO, says the tech­nol­ogy is the lat­est ef­fort to work with fish­er­men and en­gi­neers to solve the en­tan­gle­ment threat. Sci­en­tists work­ing with a grant from the Na­tional Oceanic At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion al­ready are test­ing ro­pe­less gear with lob­ster­men in the Gulf of Maine.

“It’s our mis­sion to find con­ser­va­tion mea­sures that make a dif­fer­ence,” Spruill said this week. Werner said the sim­u­la­tor ac­com­plishes what sci­en­tists can’t do in real life: test fish­ing gear on ac­tual whales.

“There aren’t enough of them, and we wouldn’t pur­posely see them get en­tan­gled,” he said. Plus, it would take decades — time the species doesn’t have — to col­lect enough data.

Re­searchers say they even­tu­ally may use the sim­u­la­tor to model and study threats to other ocean crea­tures such as leatherback sea tur­tles.

Photo / AP

Sci­en­tists say en­tan­gle­ments are a lead­ing cause of right whale deaths.

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