JORDAN BASIN, Gulf of Maine — After nearly 50 years of hauling lobster traps, Robert Ingalls can now add “whale spotter” to his nautical resume.
A lobsterman who fishes 800 traps out of the Washington County community of Bucks Harbor, Ingalls, 62, found himself 90 miles offshore last week aboard the 112-foot Friendship V whale-watching vessel as a member of a dawn-to-dusk whale spotting expedition to find and photograph North Atlantic right whales in their Gulf of Maine mating habitat.
It was a trip that embarked long before dawn from Mount Desert Island and ended 14 hours later with the $4 million vessel being greeted back to Southwest Harbor by the orange glow of a rising moon.
Like many Maine lobstermen, Ingalls was forced to comply with a 2009 requirement that, in designated fishing zones, floating rope used in setting lobster traps be replaced by sinking rope as a precaution against right whales becoming entangled in lobster gear while skim feeding near the water’s surface. It is a regulation that collectively has cost Maine lobstermen millions of dollars, even those like Ingalls, who sets traps in water too shallow to normally attract right whales.
“Until today, I was a virgin. I had never seen a right whale, but I had hoped I’d live long enough to one day see one,” Ingalls said. “I’ve never had one in my gear, and, if I did, until today I probably would have had no idea what it was.”
Ingalls figures he spent $8,000 to replace his rope and he now finds that he occasionally loses expensive traps to sinking rope that breaks after chafing on the rocky bottom where lobsters feed.
“You try to stay off the rocks, but there’s not a lot of bottom to choose from,” he said. “Usually somebody’s already there.”
While he found the Dec. 13 expedition interesting, Ingalls feels the mandatory rope swap regulations were overkill.
“I don’t think that losing one whale here or there makes a difference,” he said the next day. “It’s only a stray one that gets into the shallow water. I think they lose more to ship strikes, but it is a big and complex picture.”
Last week’s expedition into right whale breeding grounds within and beyond the Jordan Basin region of the Gulf of Maine was the last of four staged over the past 13 months. The census-by-chance project identifies and catalogs whales that summer off the coasts of Georgia and Florida and return to Maine waters between November and January to breed. Ingalls and fellow lobsterman Mike Myrick, who fishes 700 traps out of the Knox County community of Cushing, were among 20 researchers and volunteers who spotted more than 30 right whales during the dawn-to-dusk expedition, including one that was “logging,” or, in layman’s terms, taking a nap.
“Like Robert, today was the first time I had seen one,” Myrick said of the whales. “I’ve lost some gear to the sinking rope, but you really can’t do much about it. There are certain times of year when lobsters are on mud and others when they are on rock. You have got to play the game and chase [lobsters]. It’s like going to Hollywood Slots; you’re going to win some and lose some.”
Moira Brown, who led the expedition as the senior scientist at Boston’s New England Aquarium, said she was delighted not only with the number of right whales spotted and photographed but with the participation of Ingalls and Myrick as representatives of Maine’s lobster industry. Brown has devoted decades to developing data-based strategies for restoring and protecting North Atlantic right whale populations in both Canada and the United States. She said she appreciates the financial hardships inherent in new lobster gear regulations.
“These guys are helping a whale they’ve never seen, and I think it’s important for them to see these whales and to see up close how we do our research and data collection,” she said. “Not one of these guys wants to hurt or entangle a right whale.”
Nonetheless, 82 percent of the 490 right whales that have been photographed show entanglement scars.
“Lobstermen have made all kinds of accommodations involving their gear to help with right whale recovery, and the idea is to make gear modifications that allow them to fish safely and still make a living,” Brown said. “And the efforts they’ve made have been a big part of the solution. They had to do it, but they’ve embraced it and done it. It’s the only thing that’s going to make this recovery effort work.”
Brown’s best guess is that there are now 500 North Atlantic right whales. That’s at least 400 more than there were 100 years ago, she said. Since 2001, she and other whale researchers have seen a slight increase in the number of right whale calves being born. Brown estimates that since 2001, an average of 22 calves have been born each year.
“It’s trending upward,” she said of the right whale census. “The goal is to recover the population through things like gear modifications and, in shipping, establishing dynamic management areas, where ships are asked to slow down to 10 knots to avoid vessel strikes,” she said. “There’s been a lot of both mandatory and voluntary compliance over the last eight years. There has been a tremendous human effort to try to recover these whales, and it looks like the situation is improving. It’s important that mariners take pride in that.”
Collectively the five members of the research team that Brown recruited for four Gulf of Maine expeditions that began in November 2010 have more than 100 years of professional experience in sighting and cataloging North Atlantic right whales. The second whale spotted during last week’s expedition was identified by its fluke markings as the same whale spotted by one of the research team members 20 years ago in the Roseway Basin south of Nova Scotia. Brown said right whales can live beyond age 60.
The small army of spotters who joined last week’s expedition included volunteers from a range of regional organizations. They included Bar Harbor Whale Watch, the College of the Atlantic, the Sierra Club, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation, Down East Nature Tours and the Whale Center of New England in Boston. Funding for the four expeditions was provided by the Canadian Whale Institute in Campobello, the Canadian Wildlife Federation, the Canadian-based TD Financial Group and Maine’s Department of Marine Resources.
Brown said she’s now seeking funding for additional right whale surveys next year and beyond.
For information about the North Atlantic right whale, visit the New England Aquarium website at www.neaq.org/animals_and_exhibits/animals/northern_right_whale/index.php.