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Protection for all

Fisheries student testing whale-safe fishing gear with crab harvesters


By Madeline Meadus

Genevieve Peck is using her thesis to test the use of whale-safe fishing gear in the Newfoundland and Labrador snow crab fishery.  

Originally from Hearst, Ont., Ms. Peck is a first-year student in the Master of Fisheries Science and Technology Program at the Marine Institute (MI). Her research is being conducted through MI’s Centre for Sustainable Aquatic Research. 

Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s (DFO) Whale-Safe Gear Adoption Fund is supporting her research.  

‘Conservation, protection and restoration’ 

Inspired partly by her undergraduate research on the restoration of acidified lakes, Ms. Peck says that she also has a passion for marine protection.  

“The reason that I want to be a scientist is conservation, protection and restoration,” she said. “It’s such a recent issue, so it’s a really small community of scientists that are working on this very niche research, but it’s important research.”  

Whale-safe fishing gear is specially designed to break at no higher than 1,700 pounds of force. The gear is intended to mitigate the number of whale entanglements caused by fishing gear.  

Specifically, Ms. Peck’s research focuses on how this gear can help mitigate entanglements of the North Atlantic right whale — a species that is experiencing massive population decline due to fishing gear entanglements.   

A bird's eye view of ropes of various colour and thickness, with one blue gloved hand holding one of the ropes.
Some examples of the coastline cordage Genevieve Peck is testing in her research.
Photo: Submitted

Entanglement deaths  

In 2017 the North Atlantic right whale faced an increase in unusual mortality rates, which was a catalyst for fisheries research on the use of whale-safe fishing gear.

It is currently used in parts of North America but has not been tested for Newfoundland and Labrador’s fisheries. 

Ms. Peck’s research seeks to understand the feasibility of using whale-safe equipment in the snow crab fishery, which uses heavy gear designed for harsh environments.

She says the heavier gear places extra strain and tension on the break-away ropes, requiring testing to determine the whale-safe equipment’s suitability for the fishery. 

“The first step is to get some good idea of if this gear would work for our fishery and how.” 

Ms. Peck will work closely with local fish harvesters to test low-breaking strength ropes and links, equipment that is designed to break at 1,700 pounds of force, making it easier for marine life to free themselves should they become tangled.  

Coastline cordage (left) and plastic weak links (left)
At left is coastline cordage and at right are plastic weak links.
Photo: Submitted

The snow crab fishery is a fixed-gear fishery, meaning the necessary equipment is attached or set on or near the seabed until it is later retrieved.  

As the gear must remain in the ocean until the crab or other stock is caught, it puts whales — and other marine species such as sea turtles, dolphins, and seals — at risk of entanglement.  

Canada-wide research

In addition to DFO, Ms. Peck is working closely with the Canadian Wildlife Federation in Halifax, N.S.

“They’re doing a lot of work on this gear, as well,” she said. “We’re able to compare methods and results and what they’re finding.”

One of Ms. Peck’s colleagues, Dr. Sean Brillant, is the senior conservation biologist at the Canadian Wildlife Federation. His team is working on testing 8-10 different types of whale-safe fishing gear in various fisheries in the Maritime provinces.

“We need to be most attentive to human safety,” said Dr. Brillant. “We need these solutions to work for whales and for our fisheries.”

Section of weak rope spliced in a down line with a safety
Section of weak rope spliced in a down line
Photo: Submitted

Dr. Brillant and his team are working on a report of their findings that they hope to conclude by the end of this month. They will deliver their findings to DFO as part of the Whale-Safe Gear Adoption Fund.

In her first round of experiments conducted last fall, Ms. Peck measured the tension on the down ropes and performed more than 63 test hauls. 

“The lessons we learn for the snow crab fishery are hopefully going to . . . protect our fisheries and protect our harvesters.” — Genevieve Peck

For the experiment’s purposes, they used a load cell — an instrument that converts force into an electrical signal — to measure tension.

“We were measuring the tension and seeing how it differs. We also tested empty pots versus full to see what would happen and where the tension was coming from.”   

Once the experiments are completed in both the inshore and offshore snow crab fisheries, Ms. Peck will analyze the collected data. 

“It’s an issue that encompasses every single fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador, but the reason we’re focusing on snow crab is because of the size of the fishery and it’s one of the heaviest fisheries that we have. The lessons we learn for the snow crab fishery are hopefully going to apply to other fisheries and we can protect our fisheries and protect our harvesters.” 

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