NOAA scientists admit a gaffe on risk to whales of lobster trap lines

ELLSWORTH — Late last month, the NOAA Fisheries Northeast Fisheries Science Center released a “technical memorandum” suggesting that expensive efforts by Maine lobstermen aimed at reducing the risk that endangered North Atlantic right whales and other large whales would become entangled in vertical buoy lines had backfired.

According to the memorandum, issued just before a weeklong meeting of NOAA’s Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team in Providence, R.I., to consider possible changes to the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan, when the industry increased the number of traps trawled together and marked by a single buoy line, lobstermen began using stronger rope. That worsened the entanglement problem.

The memorandum seemed to offer support for calls by some conservation groups for the use of even fewer vertical buoy lines, weaker ropes and the development of a “ropeless fishery” with traps that used a remote device to release a submerged buoy when it was time to raise the gear.

In a letter addressed to NOAA Fisheries Northeast Fisheries Science Center Director Jon Hare, Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher blasted the memorandum, expressing “significant concerns about the scientific merit” of the data and research on which it was based.

According to Keliher, the memorandum relied on outdated or incorrect data and was “inconsistent in its application and interpretation” of the data on which the memorandum relied.

While the memorandum suggested that gear regulations adopted in 2015 encouraged lobstermen to use “larger diameter rope,” presumably with a higher breaking strength, for their vertical buoy lines, that assumption was baseless.

According to Keliher, the data on which the scientists relied came from a study of changes in rope manufacturing between 1994 and 2010, years before any of the gear regulations were imposed. The entire memorandum was flawed, Keliher said, because it relied on much old data and misinterpreted other data.

It turns out that the DMR commissioner had a point.

As the Take Reduction Team convened for its Oct. 9-12 meeting, NOAA acknowledged that the conclusions in the memorandum were merely a “hypothesis” and a place to begin the search for actions that could reduce the entanglement problem, rather than a “prescription” for a solution.

Speaking to Rhode Island Public Radio, Maine Lobstermen’s Association Executive Director Patrice McCarron said, “The perception, which is very important in this day and age, is that (entanglements result) because of the Maine lobster fishery, because of how they focused on Maine and how they misunderstood the data.”

She added that the agency’s misinterpretation and misunderstanding of the data was “disheartening.”

The Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team will meet early next year to consider proposals for changes to the current Take Reduction Plan.

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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