Saving the Whales, One Tool at a Time Franklin Company Partners with the Center for Coastal Studies
Michael Abi-Kheirs holds the frame of a telemetry buoy used for tracking distressed whales.
By Jane Lebak
This summer, a Franklin business became an integral part of the worldwide effort to save the whales. Specifically, saving the lives of individual whales who’ve become entangled in fishing nets.
Doug Sandilands of the Center for Coastal Studies says entanglement is an ongoing and serious problem for whales. “Sometimes a whale gets caught in different parts of the fishing gear, or it could be anchors or undersea cables. The entanglement can go through their mouth or around their tails or flippers.”
Elyse Lemery of Franklin Sheet Metal adds, “If it wraps around their mouth and their tail, the whale can die.”
Disentangling a multi-ton animal, possibly wounded or frightened, in the choppy waves of the open ocean, is no easy task. In addition to their training and certification, these disentanglement experts require highly specialized tools.
General Manager of Franklin Sheet Metal, Michael Abi-Kheirs says, “We produce nineteen different tools for disentanglement of whales, from grapples to extension poles with blades on the end, to small specialty hand-knives, to telemetry buoys that are used for tracking distressed whales as they submerge.”
The complexity is mind-boggling: knives sharp enough to slice through half-inch rope must not puncture the inflatable watercraft. They need to be made of the right alloys not to corrode in harsh conditions.
When the previous manufacturer stopped producing these tools, the Center for Coastal Studies searched for a new metal fabricator. They found their answer in Franklin Sheet Metal.
Abi-Kheirs says, “We received a handful of the existing designs, but not all nineteen. For those, we had to reverse-engineer everything. Also, every manufacturer has different types of equipment and different skill sets, so we had to make them our way. Some we had to adapt to make the tools better or more easily-manufactured. It was a logistical challenge.”
Franklin Sheet Metal, whose team of fabricators has a combined seventy years of experience, surpassed that challenge.
Sandilands says, “The Center for Coastal Studies is where whale disentanglement was invented. The first was in 1984, and we got licensed officially in 1994. We’ve freed two hundred to three hundred whales, as many as a dozen in a year.”
For every whale they disentangle, many more are never reported. According to Sandilands, “About 70% of humpback whales have been entangled at least once. For right whales, it’s probably more.”
This makes their work all that more important, not just for the whale whose life is saved, but for the preservation of the species. “We collect a lot of documentation about how it became entangled, and how to prevent entanglement.”
This work is both delicate and dangerous. Civilians who see an entangled whale should never attempt to free the whale on their own. Sandilands says, “We have a hotline number, 800-900-3622. It’s really important that people call ASAP, and that they stay with the whale as long as possible.” As one can imagine, it’s hard to find a whale again in the ocean. “Report, stay with the whale, and take lots of photos.”
Once the team is onsite, Sandilands says, “We start by tying in kegging buoys to slow the whale down. Once it’s slow and at the surface, then we can start making cuts to the gear. We’ll use hooked knives that go through half-inch lines like butter, and those go onto poles up to thirty feet long. The grapple has saved more whales than any other tool, given that it’s hard to grab the gear on an entangled whale.”
Abi-Kheirs says, “There were elements of the design that we had no clue about, like the particular angles of a grapple and the importance of being able to bend the metal to that angle. If they’re too shallow, they can’t go on. If they’re too wide, they slip off. Luckily, we have such craftsmen here that they can make it work.”
Like metal fittings through threaded holes, the pairing of Franklin Sheet Metal and the Center for Coastal Studies is a perfect fit. Abi-Kheirs says, “We’re a low-volume shop, so we can make one tool or a hundred. That’s where our niche is. Our guys are artisans and craftsmen. They really relish the complexity of it. They’re artful, so their attention to detail is incredible, and the way they finish and assemble everything is perfect.”
Sandilands says of the fabricators at Franklin Sheet Metal, “I’ve asked a lot of them, and they’ve come through at every step.”
Abi-Kheirs is proud to be part of a worldwide effort. “We send these tools all over the world. They go to Brazil, to Japan. There’s a team in Mexico that saves other kinds of whales. From this little hub, our products are sent worldwide to save whales. It’s wild to us.”
Elyse Lemery agrees. “We’re fabricating metal, but we’re actually having a positive influence in a way we couldn’t fathom previously.”
To learn more about the Center for Coastal Studies, visit https://coastalstudies.org/. Franklin Sheet Metal is at 231 Cottage Street in Franklin, and online at https://www.franklinsmetal.net .