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Maine lobster gear ID’d in rope wrapped around dead right whale's tail 

One section of rope pulled off 5120's tail shows a purple zip tie nub.
NOAA Fisheries
One section of rope pulled off 5120's tail shows a purple zip tie nub.

Lobster fishing gear from Maine state waters appears to have caused the death of a critically endangered female right whale found dead on Martha’s Vineyard late last month, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA Fisheries).

The whale, known as “5120,” was found on an Edgartown beach with rope deeply embedded in her tail. Earlier this month, officials attributed her death to chronic entanglement wounds.

Today, those officials added additional context, saying they found telltale purple zip ties on the entangling rope. In state waters, fishermen who use trap/pot gear are required to mark their gear with a state-specific color; purple is Maine’s. (Yellow is for New Hampshire; red is Massachusetts; silver is Rhode Island).

“It's incredibly fortunate that, because of a 2021 rule and the new gear-marking requirements, at least this entanglement can be attributed to a country and a fishery of origin, because that's not usually the case,” said Erica Fuller, a whale advocate from the Conservation Law Foundation.

There are only about 350 North Atlantic right whales left, and entanglements are a leading cause of death. But it’s rare for experts to find entangling gear; whales are often able to shed it, or they die and sink before the gear can be recovered.

As a result, Fuller said, blame is often shifted from fishery to fishery.

“There’s a blame game going on. ’It’s the U.S.,’ or, ‘It’s Canada.’ Or even within the U.S. waters, ‘It’s the inshore fishery,’ or, ‘offshore fisheries.’ There’s always a game without gear marking. It’s always, ‘It’s not us.’”

She said she’s glad there’s clarity in 5120’s case.

“To be able to tie this young female's death back to a fishery,” she said, “means we can make management changes, we can make sure that funding for on-demand gear goes to the right places, and where there is the most risk.” 

On-demand or “ropeless” gear is currently being developed for lobster fishermen to reduce the number of ropes in the water.

A spokesperson for the Maine Lobstermen’s Association said it was saddened by the news and that an entanglement in Maine gear is “extremely rare.”

“This is the first reported entanglement of a right whale in Maine lobster gear in 20 years and the first death attributed to the fishery,” the Association said in a statement. “Maine lobstermen have made significant changes to how they fish over the last 25 years to avoid entanglement and continue gear testing.”

But Beth Casoni, of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, put those figures in context.

“Massachusetts has been marking its gear for decades,” Casoni said, “and other states have not.”

She said she was relieved the whale wasn’t entangled in Massachusetts waters, and that there was evidence to back it up.

“Now we are going to really be able to drill down into where these interactions [and entanglements] are happening so we can mitigate them on a more finite scale.”

On that point, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association agreed.

“MLA remains committed to finding a solution to ensure a future for right whales and Maine’s lobster fishery,” the Maine Lobstermen's statement added.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.