During the last week of April, I attended the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team (TRT) meeting as one of three Maine representatives. The TRT is the group charged with making recommendations to minimize risk of whale entanglement under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The agenda included an update on the status of the stock, an entanglement report, update on gear research and consideration of a proposal from Massachusetts South Shore lobstermen to fish modified 1700-pound weak rope to gain access to an area closed in the winter and spring months.
I have been following recent research and media reports documenting the declining health and low reproduction rates of right whales. Some scientists have gone on record singling out entanglement in fishing gear as the primary cause of the whales’ poor condition, so I knew it would be a difficult meeting. And it was.
As the TRT meeting unfolded it became apparent that many on the TRT want to hold the fishing industry solely accountable for the poor condition of right whales. They stated that climate change was irrelevant and that right whales could only recover if there were significant changes to the whale plan. They used the materials presented each day to build their case to indict fishermen and demand action.
The sad reality is that right whales have not fared well over the last few years. And it is true that entanglements in fishing gear are a problem. But to ignore the rapidly changing ocean conditions, evolving patterns of right whale behavior, lack of consistent food supply, and every other variable out there in order to blame the fishing industry just doesn’t pass the straight face test. So we challenged these team members.
How did a whale species that just a year ago was touted by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) as showing promising signs of population recovery suddenly turn out to be on the brink? Where are the peer reviews of the assumptions used to develop the new right whale population model and of the research which led to these dramatic conclusions about the fate of the right whale?
Many on the TRT pointed to the ship strike rule as a success story while impugning the effectiveness of the gear rules that fishermen have been forced to implement in recent years. They argued that entanglement rates are increasing and injuries are more severe, and reasoned that the existing rules are therefore not working. They questioned all of the whale rules – sinking rope, weak links, trawling up – as if those were no big deal for fishermen to abide by and that it was time to make more stringent regulations. They said nothing of the sacrifice and commitment fishermen have made to implement these whale rules in hopes of making the ocean safer for whales.
They never recognized that the ship strike rules are working because both the U.S. and Canada are in sync with each other, and that perhaps the entanglement issue has not been solved because we have only half a plan. Since only one country, the U.S., is participating, it would be impossible to solve the entanglement issue. Maine and other industry members pushed hard that Canada needs to implement a whale plan for their fishermen before U.S. fishermen consider additional whale rules.
Massachusetts South Shore lobstermen presented a proposal for an exemption to the winter closure in their area. Cape Cod Bay has become very active with right whales feeding in recent years. In 2016, over 200 individual whales were documented feeding in a single day! The South Shore proposal would have allowed lobstermen to fish gear modified by cutting endlines into 40-foot sections, joined together by a braided sleeve that breaks at 1700 pounds. Lobstermen have tested these modifications over the past few years and found that the line fished successfully.
The MLA did not support these lobstermen in their exemption request because we have been down this road before. Twenty years ago, Massachusetts lobstermen fished sinking rope in Cape Cod Bay and that gear modification was then forced upon all East Coast fixed gear fishermen. With so few options available under the whale plan, it seems inevitable that if South Shore lobstermen were to fish this weak rope in their closed area, it would only be a matter of time before the research and conservation community would force this management measure onto everyone else. In the end, there was no consensus in support of the South Shore plan and it did not move forward.
Within minutes of the South Shore exemption request failing, the science representatives on the TRT proposed that the entire Gulf of Maine lobster industry convert to 1700-pound weak endlines immediately and then phase in ropeless fishing over 10 years. No, I’m not kidding. The MLA’s response was, in no uncertain terms, “No.”
It was a three-day battle. As has been the case since this issue started, the MLA was there to fight hard for Maine lobstermen. In the end, the fishing community could not find common ground with the research or conservation communities on a strategy to move forward. There was no consensus from the TRT coming out of that meeting. Without consensus, NMFS does not have a clear mandate from the TRT to act.
NMFS requested input following the meeting from the science, conservation and lobster industry caucuses. The message from us is simple: no new measures until Canada puts a whale management plan in place so we can truly assess the effectiveness of the whale rules. The industry also identified the need to improve research, conduct peer reviews of the current science, work to improve gear marking, and understand the baseline breaking strength of endlines in the fishery. The science community will surely come forward with demands for the lobster industry to implement weak rope and transition to ropeless fishing, and the conservation community will come in somewhere in between.
At the end of the meeting, NMFS presented a proposal to improve data on lobster fishing effort and number of endlines fished. It is very likely that NMFS will propose new reporting requirements for lobstermen. It will likely be some sort of annual recall survey asking lobstermen how and where they fish by month, based on a spatial grid, and information on the type of gear and rope used.
If you are a lobsterman, there is cause to be concerned about the future because right whales really aren’t doing that well right now. But rest assured, the MLA will remain involved and continue to demand accountability on this issue from scientists, managers and our neighbors to the north.
As always, stay safe on the water.