A North Atlantic right whale with its calf. This year, 16 of the endangered animals were found dead in the waters off northern New England and Canada. PHOTO COURTESY OF NOAA

Right whale deaths spur regulators to eye fishing gear modifications

ELLSWORTH — This has been a tough year for North Atlantic right whales.

Late in October, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the badly decomposed carcass of a right whale was found ashore on Nashawena Island, south of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. It was the 16th of the highly endangered species known to have died in U.S. or Canadian waters in 2017.

Starting in the early spring and continuing through the late summer months, a dozen dead right whales were found floating in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Canadian fisheries authorities also reported four confirmed live right whale entanglements in fishing gear.

In U.S. waters this year, at least one right whale died from a ship strike, and, in addition to the whale that washed ashore in October, two other carcasses were spotted in the Gulf of Maine this year.

Last year, the NOAA Fisheries Large Whale Take Reduction Team (TRT) began a five-year review of the right whale population to determine whether the species should continue to be listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. Unsurprisingly, the answer was “yes.”

According to NOAA and other scientists, the most recent estimate of the North Atlantic right whale population was 458. That represents a significant increase from an estimated 1990 population of 270, but a sharp drop from the estimated 483 whales in 2010.

If those numbers are correct, the 16 dead whales found so far this year represent more than 3 percent of the entire North Atlantic right whale population.

Late last month, at just about the same time as the whale carcass was found in Massachusetts, the TRT issued several recommendations aimed at better protecting the right whale population.

Many of the recommendations contained in the five-year review call for better utilization of personnel from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) regional office in Gloucester, Mass., and elsewhere to promote whale recovery, improved whale monitoring and science, including the impacts of environmental stressors such as warming waters, changes in distribution and availability of the prey species on which the whales feed and the ongoing problem of entanglements that don’t result in whale deaths but impact animal health and reproductive capacity.

The review also recommends that the NMFS should “conduct research to improve gear modifications and gear marking to inform management for the development of more finely scaled commercial fisheries regulations.”

That recommendation could have an impact on the Maine lobster industry.

A rule that became effective in 2015 limited the number of vertical buoy lines in the water by requiring lobstermen to fish a certain minimum number of traps per trawl, with the number based on water depth and tidal conditions. A rule that went into effect in 2009 required the use of sinking groundlines to connect traps together below the water. Both rules had a severe impact on Maine lobstermen, who incurred substantial costs to change the way their gear was rigged. Some fishermen also voiced safety concerns about the sinking line.

Industry members will be watching closely, as any new requirements also could be burdensome.


Stephen Rappaport

Stephen Rappaport

Waterfront Editor at The Ellsworth American
Stephen Rappaport has lived in Maine for nearly 30 years. A lifelong sailor, he spends as much time as possible messing about in boats. [email protected]

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