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Tara Hetz developed a tool that can help manage lobster fisheries, allowing lobstermen to sustain their livelihoods while protecting endangered right whales that get ensnared in fishing lines. (Photo by Tom Kleindinst, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) [ Hide caption ]

Tara Hetz

Maine lobsters and right whales

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Tara Hetz has gotten to see a different side of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) from her Summer Student Fellow (SSF) peers this summer as the sole fellow at the Marine Policy Center. With WHOI research specialist Hauke Kite-Powell, she analyzed risks posed by fishing gear to endangered North Atlantic right whales.

Hetz, a senior conservation biology major from St. Lawrence University, hails from Charlotte, Vt. Her project involved treading the tricky line between science, law, and the fishing industry—in this case the Maine lobster fishery. Right whales often become entangled in the lines that connect lobster traps on the seafloor to buoys on the sea surface. The lines can get wrapped around the whales and cut into their skin, leading to slow, painful death.

The Maine coastline consists of several distinct fishing zones, all with different regulations. Hetz’s job was to work with fishermen and policymakers to develop a tool that will allow lobstermen to sustain their livelihoods while protecting the whales. She developed a model that asks: At a particular time of year, in one area of the water, what is the specific level of risk of a whale traveling there? The model would allow fishermen to distribute their traps in places and at times when whales are not likely to be in a specific area.

“The model will go to the fishermen, management people, and whale biologists, and then they can collaborate to control the fishing effort without a policy-based series of strict government regulation,” which often hinders fishermen, Hetz said. The model can evolve over time as right whale research improves or fishing regulations change.

To get a better sense of the situation in the fishery, Hetz traveled to northern Maine, where she met with fishermen in Cutler and Sprucehead to learn about their fishing methods. She also attended a Lobstermen's Association Meeting and showed fishermen her project. But more important, she wanted to understand the fishermen’s perspective on the issue of right whale entanglement.

“I learned about the hardships they’re dealing with, because this is how they put bread on the table,” said Hetz. “You see the dead whales and feel that you have to protect them, but also understand that the fishermen need to live, too.”

Aside from her project, Hetz had plenty of fun outdoors in Woods Hole with the other SSFs, “playing basketball, Frisbee, going swimming, and running," she said. "It’s like summer camp for science nerds.”

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Tara Hetz developed a tool that can help manage lobster fisheries, allowing lobstermen to sustain their livelihoods while protecting endangered right whales that get ensnared in fishing lines. (Photo by Tom Kleindinst, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

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