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A Slippery Rope

An experiment in flossing with fishing line

As right whales cruise the ocean with their mouths open to feed, they are vulnerable to catching fishing lines in their baleen, the comb-like material that filters out their staple diet, microscopic zooplankton.

Unlike dental floss in human teeth, fishing ropes are difficult to extricate from baleen. In 2003, WHOI biologist Michael Moore and Derek Cavatorta, a University of Massachusetts undergraduate participating in WHOI’s Summer Student Fellowship program, began an experiment to identify ropes with less stick-to-itive properties.
“Derek and I wondered how rope behaves in baleen and whether different kinds of rope might be able to slip out of the baleen more readily,” Moore said. “If we can find a way to avoid getting the ropes permanently caught in the baleen, we may alleviate some of the entanglement problem.”

Moore and Cavatorta filled a tank in the WHOI Shore Lab with seawater and a preserved sample of baleen from Staccato, a right whale that had died in 1999 off Wellfleet, Mass (see page 6). They pulled various types of ropes through the baleen and used a tension meter to measure the amount of drag.

Their experiment demonstrated that certain types of rope produced less friction in the baleen. The study, slated for publication in the Journal of Cetacean Research and Management, could inform new fishing strategies that lessen the chances of deadly whale entanglements.

Originally published: November 1, 2004