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Cowboy Conservationist Frees Whales with Crossbow

Marine biologist Scott Landry’s tool of choice for freeing whales tangled in stray fishing gear is the gobbler guillotine, a crossbow-like weapon designed in Texas for shooting turkeys.

Photo: Larry Meade

Marine biologist Scott Landry’s tool of choice for freeing whales tangled in stray fishing gear is the gobbler guillotine, a crossbow-like weapon designed in Texas for shooting turkeys. He figured, If it can cut the head off a turkey, why not cut through fishing rope?

Since 1998, he’s invented imaginative techniques for freeing whales tangled along the Eastern Seaboard, including humpbacks and endangered North Atlantic right whales, whose population hovers at around 490 total.

The Pacific Standard interviewed Landry on his outlandish but effective methods:

“We get asked all the time, ‘Well, why don’t you just jump in the water?’” he says. Swimming close to the panicked animals is impossibly dangerous. And a single 50-ton—or 100,000-pound—whale can drag a 50-foot fishing boat, its two diesel engines going at full throttle, backward.

“People assume things about whales—that they’re very friendly, that they communicate with people,” Landry says. “They are wild animals. When they’re faced with something new, they’re afraid.”

Whale wrangler Landry is certainly not short of work.

Research shows that nearly 70 percent of right whales have been snared by rope at least once. In 2011, entanglements were the cause in two of the five confirmed right-whale deaths, and odds are that many more fatal cases went unobserved. At its current death rate, the right whale’s population is unsustainable.

Researchers are trying to determine if fishing rope of different colors or luminoscity may deter whales from tangling themselves, and also designing fishing line-free lobster traps that use an acoustic signal to trigger their rise to the surface when they’re ready to be harvested. But as long as there are old-style traps in the ocean, Landry will keep wielding that turkey gun.

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