KENNEBUNK — It’s not just that proposed federal rules intended to protect endangered right whales from entanglement with fishing gear will be expensive and difficult to implement, industry representatives say. It’s also that they won’t work.
That’s the argument Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, made in a letter sent to NOAA Fisheries on Friday.
The proposed rules came from a meeting in April of a federal stakeholder group, the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, which includes McCarron and four other Maine lobster industry representatives. That Maine delegation is now withdrawing support from the “near-consensus” plan, McCarron wrote.
“The Agency’s current rulemaking does not address the full scope of known human causes of the decline in the species and will be insufficient to reverse the right whale population’s downward trend,” she wrote.
At the April meeting, McCarron notes, the full group recommended that NOAA Fisheries “revisit the Team’s recommendations if revisions to the model suggest … a distinctly different understanding of risk” to the whales.
That time has come. The MLA now says the data and the models used to arrive at the plan significantly overstated the role of Maine fishing gear in risk to right whales.
A September 2018 technical memo on right whales from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which has been a basis for many of the deliberations since, “wrongly forced TRT members to assume, for purposes of their deliberations, that the Northeast lobster fishery presents the most significant cause of right whale serious injury and mortality without evidence to support that assumption,” McCarron wrote.
“Since the release of the technical memo, NMFS has consistently implied that serious injury and mortality from the Northeast lobster fishery exceeds Potential Biological Removal (of 0.9 whales per year), even though this assertion is not supported by the data.”
Instead, the MLA’s analysis of federal data “found that gillnet and netting gear were the most prevalent gear (other than Canadian snow crab gear), and the Northeast lobster fishery (and the Maine lobster fishery in particular) were the least prevalent in right whale entanglements from known causes,” McCarron wrote.
This means that “the 60-percent conservation target stipulated by the Agency and allocated solely to the Northeast lobster fishery is unsupported by the best available data, and any package of remedial measures designed to meet it cannot credibly generate the conservation benefits anticipated.”
Also, despite the alarming overall numbers of right whale deaths in recent years, the current Take Reduction Plan appears to be working, at least as far as U.S. lobster gear is concerned — another conclusion from NOAA Fisheries’ own data that was left out of presentations to the TRT, McCarron said.
Since new sets of “whale rules” were implemented by Maine lobstermen in 2009 and again in 2014, “there has been a strong downward trend in the incidence of entanglement cases involving U.S. lobster gear,” she wrote. There has been only once such case since 2010, she said, a non-serious injury in Massachusetts lobster gear.
Further, most of the ropes removed from right whales in recent years are thicker, a half-inch diameter or more, than those used by Maine lobstermen.
The proposed rules won’t help the whales enough, McCarron argues, because they don’t address the biggest human-caused dangers to the whales: gillnet and other fisheries, ship strikes and emerging threats such as “seismic testing, offshore wind developments and offshore aquaculture.”
“NMFS has not acknowledged the ongoing contribution of ship strikes to right whale serious injury and mortality, but instead has brought attention only to the Northeast lobster fishery,” she wrote. “The MLA is not aware of any planned rulemaking to address the risk to right whales due to U.S. ship strikes and urges the Agency to address this issue promptly.”
Meanwhile, Maine fisheries regulators are at work on an alternative set of recommendations. Another round of meetings with lobstermen on the issue was scheduled, but they have been postponed.
“Commissioner [Pat Keliher] regrets the delays but wants to ensure that the Department of Marine Resources develops a proposal for submission to the National Marine Fisheries Service that reflects a thorough review of all data,” a statement from DMR said.