The recent entanglement of a humpback whale near Boothbay last month reveals a tragic story that few people know about. Most news focuses on the North Atlantic right whale, its endangered status and whether or not these right whales are present in Maine waters. But many large whales inhabit Maine waters, not just right whales. Humpbacks, minkes and fin whales are consistently observed in the Maine marine habitat throughout the year. These large whales get entangled in Maine lobster gear every year, and some of them die.


Members of the Marine Animal Entanglement Response team from the Center for Coastal Studies, in Provincetown, Mass., use a knife at the end of a 30-foot pole to cut rope and free a mature female humpback whale named Valley from its entanglement in fishing gear outside Boston Harbor in 2021. Although the effort to free Valley ended in success, more than a third of the 601 large whales entangled in the U.S. from 2002 to 2018 died. Scott Landry/Center for Coastal Studies, NOAA permit #18786-05, via AP

The Marine Mammal Protection Act, a law passed by Congress in 1973, requires “a complete moratorium, i.e., a complete cessation, on the taking (killing or injuring) of marine mammals in U.S. waters.” Unfortunately, and perhaps unknowingly, we are breaking this law by ignoring and tolerating the chronic entanglement of large whales in Maine and everywhere else on the East Coast of the United States.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service has been reporting on large-whale entanglements since the early 2000s. These reports give a detailed analysis of each documented case including the whale species, its name, disentanglement efforts, survival or death and the type of gear with its origin, if known.

According to NOAA Fisheries’ published Annual Entanglement Reports, from 2002 to 2018, there were 601 entanglements (i.e., cases where attached rope was observed) of large whales documented in U.S. waters. In 66 of these cases, the gear was traced back to state and federal waters where Maine lobstermen fish, and more than one-third of these whales died. Minke whales made up the majority of entanglements, with humpbacks and finbacks also noted. There were four reports of whales outside of Maine fishing waters that had Maine lobster gear on them. The reports document 30 large whales entangled in lobster gear fished in Maine. That is an average of almost two large whales per year that were definitely entangled in Maine lobster gear in the 17 years between 2002 and 2018.

Recent NOAA data show that 84 large whales were found entangled from 2020 to 2022.  Twelve were traced back to a specific fishery. Seven of those 12 were documented entangled with Maine purple marked lobster gear on them. Three of those whales were humpbacks; four were minkes. Two of the minkes died.

The data also show that four large whales had Massachusetts gear on them and one had Canadian gear on it.  The majority of recent large-whale entanglements were from Maine lobster gear, which has the most fixed fishing gear of any fleet on the East Coast. Now, in 2023, we have the entanglement of a humpback in Maine gear near Boothbay.

There are ways to lower the risk for all large whales from being accidentally entangled in lobster gear. Lobster gear in waters up to 50 fathoms (300 feet) deep can install weak links, which allow large whales to better break away from the gear.  These weak links have to be installed correctly, however, for them to be effective. Weak links should be added to endlines every 10 fathoms (60 feet) from bottom to the top. Putting one link in the middle or two links between the middle and the top does not protect the whales that get entangled below the middle point.  Lobstermen who fish beyond 50 fathoms find weak links do not hold their heavier trawls. In these cases, on-demand or ropeless fishing could be used. Many lobstermen in Massachusetts and snow crab fishermen in Canada have been commercially fishing with the new technology for the past two years.

No one, especially Maine lobstermen, wants to see a large whale entangled in fishing gear. The Maine Department of Marine Resources should work with Maine lobstermen to help them implement the low-risk methods available to prevent entanglement of all large whales. We are legally obligated to do so.

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