ELLSWORTH — It’s still too early in the year for lobster fishing to be in full swing, so it was quiet enough on the water this week to hear the distant sound of dropping shoes from a meeting of the NOAA Fisheries Large Whale Take Reduction Team meeting that began Tuesday morning in Providence, R.I.
The four-day meeting of some 60 state and federal fisheries management officials, scientists, fishermen and conservation group representatives was scheduled to discuss ways to further reduce serious injury and mortality of endangered North Atlantic right whales attributed to lobster traps and other trap and pot fishing gear.
By the time the meeting ends on Thursday, the Take Reduction Team could propose some stringent measures affecting the Maine lobster fishery.
Under the provisions of the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, the number of North Atlantic right whales suffering human-caused death or serious injury each year should be no more than 0.9 whales per year, according to calculations.
According to a risk management model developed by federal fisheries scientists, to accomplish that goal whale mortalities caused by interactions with fishing gear need to be reduced by between 60 percent and 80 percent.
The model was developed, scientists said, to assist the Take Reduction Team in assessing how much risk fixed fishing gear, including lobster gear, poses to whales and in finding ways to reduce whale entanglements with fishing gear.
When scientists introduced the new model during a NOAA Fisheries webinar last week, they acknowledged that it was still a work in progress. It is short on data on when and where large whales had actually been seen in the Gulf of Maine and long on assumptions that high concentrations of lobster gear in nearshore waters increased the risk of whale entanglements.
The scientists promised to have a more refined model in place in time for this week’s meeting.
Neither the model nor the promise of improvement impressed Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. She’s a member of the Take Reduction Team.
“To have a government agency a week before a meeting say, ‘This is the best we have deal with it,’ is very disturbing,” she said last week.
“Tackling entanglements is critical to the recovery of the North Atlantic right whale population, and we can’t do it without the assistance and cooperation of those who know best how the fishing industry interacts with large whales,” Mike Pentony, regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Region, said in a statement. “The continued participation and dedication of our industry, science, NGO (non-governmental organizations), and agency partners is absolutely necessary to future success.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story contained an error. It’s the Marine Mammal Protection Act, not the Endangered Species Act, that specifies the maximum allowable number of North Atlantic right whales suffering human-caused death or serious injury.