The humpback whale that became temporarily stuck in a commercial fishing net on Monday moved away before officials could determine if it may have remained tangled in a portion of the mesh and be at possible risk of greater harm, even death. The incident points to a disturbing lack of federal and state oversight in protecting these animals from potentially fatal encounters with fishing equipment. This is not the first time large-scale gill net operators have been at the center of environmental concerns.
Gill nets work more or less the way one might imagine: Smaller fish can swim through; larger ones become ensnared in the nearly invisible mesh, immobilized and dying quickly. Ocean beach visitors might have noticed large boats nearby in the surf as they deployed nets perpendicular to shore, often several within a small distance. Some are notable here for the black flags they display on staffs at their offshore ends.
At least twice in recent years, boat-based gill netting has apparently been responsible for killing Atlantic sturgeon, an endangered species that is the subject of a desperate restoration effort. Large striped bass are often thrown back dead, simply because they are longer than the state’s “slot” limit of between 28 and 38 inches. The highly prized sport fish is at present overfished, according to federal regulators. They are now at a level not adequate to grow their population, and there is a moratorium on their harvest in federal waters as coastwide steps are being considered. Given this context, it is counterproductive that New York allows the indiscriminate killing of the largest breeding fish by boat-based nets, as opposed to nets from shore.
Underscoring the regulatory lapse, Monday’s whale encounter should not have happened. With numerous humpbacks in the area for weeks feeding on large schools of menhaden, state and federal wildlife managers should have shut down the coastal gill-net fishery until the whales moved on. Fortunately, the western Atlantic humpback whale is rated at least risk. The species is, like all other whales, protected throughout its U.S. range. Not so, however, right whales, the remnants of a once-thriving population that passes Long Island in the winter; that species is reduced to about 400 individuals.
Not all commercial fishing puts whales — or striped bass — at risk. The persistence of near-shore gill netting, however, raises valid questions about whether this specific technique is compatible with greater marine protection objectives.