Steaming Ahead

It has been a hell of a year for right whales. As I write this, eight right whales have been found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence so far this summer. Necropsies conducted by researchers on six of the whales attribute three deaths to ship strikes, one to entanglement in snow crab gear, and one remains undetermined. One necropsy is still pending.
In addition to these mortalities, there have been six entangled right whales in 2017. Fortunately, three were successfully disentangled. Of the six, four were sighted in the Gulf of St. Lawrence since July. Sadly, a well-known Canadian fisherman and trained disentangler was killed after freeing a right whale off New Brunswick. Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) suspended disentanglement efforts following this tragic death.
All this is taking place on top of the seven right whale entanglements which took place in 2016. Of those, two were disentangled and two whales died entangled in Canadian snow crab gear. In June of 2015, three right whale carcasses were found within three weeks in the Gulf of St Lawrence. All three animals were in poor condition and no cause of death was determined.
Researchers are scrambling to figure out what is going on in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, but DFO has acknowledged that ship traffic and the snow crab fishery have played a significant role in these whale deaths. On July 12 the agency closed a small portion of the Area 12 snow crab fishery two days before the season was to end, and then the rest of the fishery on July 20, leaving 2% of the crab quota uncaught. According to the DFO web site, snow crab fishermen are limited to 75 traps and there is no limit on the total number of vessels in the fishery. There were 291 active vessels in 2016. There are also 12 First Nation communities with access to this fishery. Snow crab stocks are healthy and the fishery is growing.
Losing eight endangered whales and a 58-year-old fisherman in the course of a few weeks is a crisis by any standard. I can’t begin to imagine how things might be different if this same scenario happened in the Gulf of Maine with lobster gear. Seldom do we have such definitive information regarding which fishery’s gear entangled so many whales. At a minimum, we’d be facing lawsuits and more stringent whale conservation measures.
The MLA has been very concerned for some time about the disparity between the whale conservation measures in place for U.S. fixed gear fishermen, and the lack of whale conservation measures for Canadian fixed gear fishermen. One of the few areas of consensus coming out of the April Take Reduction Team meeting among fishermen, conservationists, researchers and government officials was the need for Canada to put whale conservation measures in place for their fishermen.
Canada did publish a proposed action plan in 2016 to address fishery interactions with right whales under their Species at Risk Act, but the plan was void of any required mitigation measures. Instead it focused on having discussions with the fishing industry, conducting gear studies and understanding interactions between fishing gear and whales. Clearly, Canada’s efforts to date are not enough.
Fortunately, a five-year clock is now ticking for Canada to put some whale conservation measures in place. Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the U.S. can ban the import of seafood from any country that does not have parity in its marine mammal protection efforts. The five-year clock for countries to show that they have adequate marine mammal protection measures in place began in January 2017. This pressure should help us gain some degree of equality in whale protection measures between our two countries, but does not address the crisis at hand.
It is clear that something has changed within the right whale population. Record numbers have been seen in Cape Cod Bay over the past few winters while fewer have been sighted in the Bay of Fundy. Clearly, they are present in larger numbers in the Gulf of St. Lawrence now than they have been historically. Dr. Mo Brown from the New England Aquarium said in an interview that she’s noticed right whales have shifted away from traditional habitat in the Bay of Fundy and that scientists had documented 35 right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 2015 and 17 in 2016. I expect the numbers will be even higher this year.
But why has the outcome for whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence been so dire compared to other commercially fished areas, such as Cape Cod Bay, with significantly higher whale sightings? At a minimum, it stands to reason that the U.S. whale plan has had a positive impact.
With so much bad news for whales coming out of Canada, in addition to the poor reproduction in recent years, Maine lobstermen must remain vigilant in adhering to our whale protection measures. Such a significant reduction in the right whale population affects us all. I worry that any additional mortalities or severe entanglements in U.S. fishing could lead to heavy pressure for New England fishermen to do more to protect whales.
The MLA is reviewing all of the U.S. right whale entanglement records this summer to get a better handle on what we do and do not know about fishing gear entanglements. With ropeless fishing and weak end lines being proposed for the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery, we need to be armed with as much information as possible. The MLA is also working with the Department of Marine Resources to document the maximum working loads of lobster boats to better understand the strain your rope must endure under less-than-ideal conditions. We will also be asking lobstermen to donate a few endlines so that we can develop as baseline of the breaking strength of the rope currently fished.
I can only hope that this is the end of the string of right whale deaths, but stay tuned!
As always, stay safe on the water.

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