ELLSWORTH — The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service will hold off on announcing new rules aimed at protecting North Atlantic right whales from entanglement with fishing gear, including Maine lobster fishing gear, until at least July.
The agency, also known as the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), had been expected to release proposed rules by late last fall or possibly in January. But in a filing with the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., last week, Jenifer Anderson, an assistant regional administrator at the NFMS Greater Atlantic Regional Office in Gloucester, Mass., said the delay was the result of fisheries managers from Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts submitting proposed state-specific lobster fishing rules to the agency for review later than expected.
According to Anderson, NMFS anticipated receiving proposals from the states last fall, but the Maine Department of Marine Resources didn’t file its proposals until Jan. 3. Those proposals differed, she said, from proposals the state tentatively agreed to last April at a meeting of the agency’s Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team. According to Anderson, Massachusetts and New Hampshire were expected to file their plans “on or about” Feb. 1.
Maine quickly withdrew its support for the agency’s Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team proposals last spring because, according to DMR and the lobster industry, they were based on bad science and decision makers were not given adequate time to review the scientific assessment tool NMFS used to reach its conclusions about needed regulatory measures.
After all the state plans are filed with NMFS, the agency will “evaluate the conservation benefits of these state efforts and the necessary scope of federal rulemaking” necessary to reach the target set last spring of a 60 percent reduction in the risk of mortality or serious injuries to endangered right whales from entanglement in fishing gear.
The rulemaking process is complex. Once NMFS decides what federal steps are needed for whale protection the agency will prepare a draft rule, a draft Environmental Impact Statement by the federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and a draft “Biological Opinion” required by the Endangered Species Act.
Once the draft rule has been approved by the federal Office of Management and Budget, a process Anderson said could take as long as 90 days, NMFS will publish the proposed rule and the draft Environmental Impact Statement for public comment. Anderson said the agency also would publish the draft Biological Opinion even though that is not required. After NMFS reviews the comments and makes any changes it deems necessary it will publish the final rule and Environmental Impact Statement.
The announced delay in the new whale protection rules comes at a bad time for whales and regulators.
On Jan. 24, senior NOAA personnel met with their counterparts from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Transport Canada to continue discussions on efforts by both nations to reduce right whale mortalities and serious injuries. According to a statement released last week, “both countries agreed to redouble efforts to share innovative techniques and solutions that foster healthy fisheries, reduce the risk of entanglements and create whale-safe shipping practices.”
The need for those efforts was again accentuated last week when a right whale was discovered entangled in fishing gear near Nantucket Island in Massachusetts. There was no word as to what type of gear was involved or where the entanglement occurred.
Fisheries officials feared the whale might drown if it weren’t quickly freed but rescue efforts were complicated by the nearby presence of a pod of 60 other right whales that might be endangered by heavy boat traffic involved a rescue effort.
According to NMFS, since June 2017, there have been 30 confirmed right whale deaths, 21 in Canada and nine in the United States. Nine of the deaths were the result of vessel strikes, five were attributed to entanglement in fishing gear (though none in the Gulf of Maine) and the cause of death could not be determined in six cases. On its website, NMFS lists determination of the cause of death of the other 10 whales as still “pending.”