ESR prepress abstract  -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/esr00963

Frequent right whale encounters with the seafloor increase their risk of entanglement in fishing groundlines

Philip K. Hamilton*, Scott D. Kraus

*Email: phamiltn@neaq.org

ABSTRACT: North Atlantic right whales Eubalaena glacialis utilize the entire water column and are frequently entangled in ropes from fishing gear. Limited data from telemetry tags have shown that right whales can swim/feed at or near the seafloor. Because those data are limited, some uncertainty remains regarding the frequency of dives to the seafloor and thus the likelihood of right whale encounters with fishing ropes there. The North Atlantic right whale photo-identification catalog was used to determine the number of sightings of right whales with seafloor sediment on their bodies and the relative frequency and geographic location of those seafloor encounters. Between 1980 and 2016, there were 2053 detections of right whales with‘mud’ on their bodies, which represents 2.9% of all sightings (n = 70593), or 58.2% of all cataloged whales (n = 730). Although muddy right whales were found throughout their range and in all months, 92.7% of all detections occurred in the Bay of Fundy in the summer where there was an average annual detection rate of 7.3% with a maximum of 26% of sightings in 2010. Mud was found on whales of all age classes including calves of the year, and equally among males and females. These seafloor encounters suggest that any rope resting on, or floating above, the seafloor could pose an entanglement hazard. The use of sinking groundlines likely reduces the risk of entanglements for whales swimming near the seafloor, but may not eliminate the risk for whales making contact with the sediment.