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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