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Cape Cod Chatham Fisherman Charged with Humpback Whale Crime

A local Chatham fisherman is charged with with violating the Endangered Species and Marine Mammal Protection acts for freeing a whale from his fishing gear off Chatham last July. Some readers of this website know that I am a commercial fisherman myself. I also have known the person involved in this case for over 20 years. Locally, whale and fishing gear interactions are rare, though we do see whales nearly every time we are out.

In over 22 years of commercial fishing I have never seen a whale caught in fishing gear. I happen to know the real story and it is not as malicious as the news makes it sound. Eldridge was setting out his gear (fixed gear groundfish nets) when the whale surfaced and became entangled in one of the end lines.

End lines or buoy lines in a fixed gear fishery are the lines which attach to each end of an anchored “string” of common fixed gear such as lobster pots or gillnets. The end lines hang vertically in the water column suspended from the marker buoy and are attached to each anchored end of the string or trawl. This is how the gear is retrieved by the fisherman and also marks where the gear is so other mobile gear fisherman such as scallopers and fish draggers can avoid it.

Here are a couple quotes from the news wire:

BOSTON — A Massachusetts man has been charged in federal court with capturing a humpback whale. Federal authorities said Monday that 39-year-old Robert Eldridge of West Chatham violated federal law by taking the whale using a fishing vessel in July 2008.

Humpback whales are protected under both the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Eldridge is charged in a total of three counts with violating both acts. If convicted, Eldridge faces up to one year imprisonment and a $100,000 fine.

According to court documents, Eldridge “did knowingly and unlawfully take a marine mammal, to wit, a humpback whale in waters under the jurisdiction of the United States by acts of pursuit, torment, and annoyance which had the potential to injure said marine mammal in the wild.”

The truth to the story is that Eldridge did not “attempt to take a humpback whale”. The whale became entangled, he freed it from his gear and it swam away.

For obvious reasons (mainly the the year in jail and the $100,000 fine) a rare interaction such as this would go unreported. That day he happened to have a federal fisheries observer on board, which is a very common occurrence these days. The observer reported the incident because it is their job to do so. Evidently someone higher up decided to make a Federal case of this.

Let the media say otherwise, but your local fishermen do not try to catch, kill, pursue, torment, or annoy whales.



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Cape Cod
Posted by Cape Cod - (website) on 03/10/09
Categories: FishingNature
Keywords: chatham, fisherman, humpback whale, entangled, fishing gear, Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act


God forbid it wasn’t a seal. Give the guy a break. The whales come out of nowhere sometimes. At least it was released w/o any harm.

Posted by sonny1213 from cape cod on 03/10/09 at 10:42 PM | #

I read the article. Don’t know Bob I think. But I hear from everyone who does know him that he is an incredible father, husband and man. quiet and very serious about his job. I think what really made me angry id that a government observer can get on any commercial boat whenever they want and “watch” fisherman do their job. I would not tolerate this in my business! Whats more upsetting is that win or lose this man and his family will probably lose everything trying to argue this case. He is a fisherman! Where is the public outrage? Where are the organizations who exist that are supposed to help fisherman navigate murky federal waters? Shame on them for not stepping up and helping Bob! I am just one person but I want to help Bob. Hopefully I can rally the forces and do so.

Posted by caroline from Chatham on 03/21/09 at 08:05 PM | #

Sounds like the government doing there regular crappy job.  A fisherman has no control over a whale jumping out of the water and getting tangled in his lines.  It should have never been reported if the federal person could tell it was an accident.  An accident is an ACCIDENT and he should have never been charged.  What they need to be checking out is the large processing ships that come in and drop there boats and start dragging for everything.

Posted by Linda from Turners Falls Ma on 04/09/09 at 05:58 PM | #

I was so happy to find your web page.
I had read about the fisherman and the whale. I mailed the story to several friends. Everyone had the same reaction. The fisherman was right in what he did. Ok, so he could have been hurt, but that is besides the point.
Good grief, the Whale could have died waiting for NOAA to show up and help.

Posted by Redwing on 10/02/09 at 02:12 PM | #

Not a relative—-I don’t think. We keep voting people into office who want to control every aspect of our lives . Then we complain when they do what we knew they were going to do in the first place. The way we’re going right now, we’re going to have to check with the government before we take a breath.

Posted by Peter Eldridge from Colchester, CT on 12/05/09 at 02:42 PM | #

According to the latest news, the government says “He wasn’t able to disentangle the whale but cut his fishing lines, which freed the whale to swim away still entangled in 25 to 30 feet of sinking fishing line.”
Is this accurate according to your knowledge of the incident?  If it is correct, then it arguably would have been better to call in an expert, and the $500 fine finally imposed is not so harsh.

Posted by Brian from NH on 12/29/10 at 04:22 PM | #

Hi Brian,

I am not sure of the details of the case beyond what I heard at the time.

I am not sure however that the whale would have been better off waiting several hours for the “experts” to arrive on the scene.

I would imagine it would have taken them several hours to get there and the whale would have been struggling against the firmly anchored gear and the tide, which runs pretty hard off Chatham.

I am also not sure what the term “expert” means in this case. From most of the news footage and stories I have seen these “experts” seem to be young volunteers. Similar to the crews on Whale Wars, whose seamanship skills are lacking to say the least.

Many of the news clips I have seen where the “experts” in zodiacs are trying to get lines free from whales look like pretty “hokey” operations at best.

If I was the whale, I would rather have the fisherman release me immediately, rather than wait for 5 or 6+ hours until the “experts” arrived on scene.

Posted by Cape Cod from Cape Cod, Massachusetts on 12/29/10 at 10:04 PM | #

It is time the American people stood up to defend ourselves against a government out of control. Band together and take back our rights as free americans.

Posted by Capt. R.K.Lord from Pt.Judith Rhode Island on 06/06/11 at 05:31 PM | #

Related Posts: are tagged with chatham, fisherman, humpback whale, entangled, fishing gear, Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act
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