NOAA issues approach to reduce right whale mortality

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration put out a new Biological Opinion on May 27 that includes a framework to reduce the mortality and serious injury of North Atlantic right whales in federal fisheries by up to 87 percent in the next 10 years.

The 582-page document creates a four-phase approach to cut down on the death and injuries of the critically endangered whales in the fishing grounds managed by the federal agency, though it does not specify measures on how that would be achieved and has no regulatory effect.

“The Conservation Framework outlines NOAA Fisheries’ commitment to implement measures that are necessary for the recovery of right whales, while providing a phased approach and flexibility to the fishing industry,” spokesperson Allison Ferreira wrote in an email to the Islander. “As such, the Conservation Framework does not specify particular measures, but identifies the level of reductions in mortalities and serious injuries that (National Marine Fisheries Service) is committed to achieve in order to meet its (Endangered Species Act) mandates.”

The 10-year plan calls to reduce the mortality rates up to 87 percent in fixed gear fisheries, lowering the average to 0.136 deaths annually.

In 2021, the plan calls on NOAA Fisheries to implement a plan to reduce mortality of right whales related to the American lobster and Jonah crab trap/pot fisheries in the U.S. by 60 percent.

The framework will be evaluated along the way to allow for revisions.

The new Biological Opinion looked at the lobster fishery and several other species. It considers measures that were included in a proposed rule from the end of last year to reduce right whale deaths.

That proposed rule included adding more traps to each buoy line to reduce the number of vertical lines, inserting weak links in ropes so entangled whales can break free, restrictions on some fishing areas during times when whales are predicted to be there and the use of color-coded rope to identify the origin of gear found entangled on whales – a practice that Maine has already adopted.

NOAA hopes to publish the proposed rule later this summer.

There are less than 400 right whales left in the world and two major human causes of mortality are vessel strikes and entanglements in fishing gear.

The whales migrate up and down the East Coast and up to Canada. Local fishermen who have been lobstering for decades maintain that they are not the ones who are putting the whales at risk and they don’t even see them in Maine waters.

The new Biological Opinion from NOAA comes after a D.C. federal court judge ordered the agency to create a new one by the end of May. Conservationists sued NOAA, arguing that its rules for the lobster fishery violated the Endangered Species Act.

The state Department of Marine Resources plans to conduct a thorough evaluation of the opinion, but based upon initial review, Governor Janet Mills was pleased that “no jeopardy” was found, she wrote in a statement.
“However, the long-term ramifications of this document as it relates to the recovery of right whales and its impact on Maine fisheries over the next ten years remain troubling,” she said. “In particular, the Bi-Op highlights not only the importance of Canada taking significant steps to reduce right whale mortality, but also the need for NOAA to be able to quantify how risk reduction measures by Canada can reverse the declining trend in the whale population. Failure of either could ultimately lead to unnecessary restrictions in the U.S. — and that is not acceptable.”

Ethan Genter

Ethan Genter

Former reporter for the Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander, Ethan covered maritime news and the town of Bar Harbor.

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