ELLSWORTH — A Feb. 24 public hearing on a proposed National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) rule aimed at reducing the risk of North Atlantic right whale entanglements in fishing lines raised questions of relevant data used in drafting the rule and its outcome for lobstermen and right whales.
These conversations have been going on between conservationists, lobstermen, NOAA and the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) since 2019, when NOAA held its first public meetings on how lobstermen could adapt fishing methods to reduce the risks.
The Take Reduction Team, operating under NOAA Fisheries, is tasked with upholding the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The North Atlantic right whale has been on the endangered species list since 1970, and the ESA determines a right whale mortality rate that will not further diminish their population. That rate now stands at 0.7 per year. Even one death is considered too much.
Although a new draft biological opinion just released proposes a 98 percent risk reduction to prevent right whale extinction, the TRT plan goal was based on an earlier opinion, recommending a 60 percent risk reduction. May 31 is the court-ordered deadline for finalizing the draft biological opinion and lobster fishing regulations to protect whales.
“For that reason, we plan to move very quickly to finalize the [NOAA] Draft Environmental Impact Statement and the Rule,” NOAA Fisheries Marine Mammal & Sea Turtle Branch Chief Colleen Coogan said.
NOAA’s proposed rule would see lobstermen add more traps to each buoy line and insert weak links in ropes so entangled whales can break free, restrict some fishing areas during times when whales are predicted to be there and use color-coded rope to identify the origin of gear found entangled on whales, a practice which Maine has already adopted.
Entanglements and data
Entangled whales often slowly die over a period of years, conservationists said at the NOAA hearing. From 2017 to present, 21 whales were found deceased in Canada and 12 in the United States, with human interaction the leading cause, specifically from entanglements or vessel strikes, according to the most recent NOAA fisheries data. An additional 11 whales are presumed dead or suffering from life-threatening injuries.
But lobstermen maintain the existing data does not show right whales are in Maine fishing waters, and that Maine should not be grouped with other New England states in the proposed rule.
“There’s clearly a disconnect” between the data and the proposed rule, said lobsterman Jack Merrell of Islesford, who said he also holds a degree in marine biology.
And right whales’ main food source, copepods, have migrated because of a warming Gulf of Maine, Deer Isle lobsterman Julie Eaton said, which in turn has shifted the whales’ travel routes.
Then there are ship strikes. Most recorded whale mortality events cannot be fully determined to be caused by ship strikes or entanglements. But lobstermen are now pointing to a lower U.S. mortality rate since the pandemic, when cruise ships stopped operating.
In addition, Maine lobstermen have already taken measures to protect right whales, adopting new gear rules in 2002, sinking ground lines in 2004 and reduced vertical trap lines in 2014.
“Maine fishermen want to do our fair share, but we can’t stop whales from getting killed in Canada,” said Kristan Porter, president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association’s board of directors. “This plan has to be based on sound science.”
Conservationists agreed on the lack of recent data but some, including ocean scientist and teacher Bill McWeeny of Brooksville, said that saying right whales are not in Maine is untrue — at least in 2004, when Maine gear was found on a dead right whale. And, with 87 percent of pot and trap gear on the East Coast, he said it’s “reasonable that Maine lobstermen entangle whales.”
With fewer than 85 breeding females, Gina Garey, of Animal Wellness Action’s Portland chapter said, “The rule doesn’t go far enough.”
And Karen Murray, logging on from Florida, noted there are alternative livings for lobstermen but “no second chances for right whales” if their numbers continue to dwindle.
“Maybe [Maine lobstermen] never see them because they’re all dead,” she said.
Ropeless fishing, held out by environmentalists as a way for lobstermen and whales to coexist, is not affordable to lobstermen at present.
“We must acknowledge the technology is years away from being used in a [practical] way,” DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher said.
U.S. Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine) told the 300-plus participants that the state’s congressional delegation has written President Biden “asking him to pay attention to what’s going on here” and read key parts of the letter.
“What [data] are you using to inform the regulations you propose and … how this will make a difference?” Golden quoted. “There’s questions if this will have the desired outcome for right whales.”
NOAA has received over 23,000 comments on the proposed rule “mostly from environmental organization campaigns,” Coogan said, and 350 individual comments. Comments were accepted through March 1.