Maine’s Concerns Heard at Whale Meeting

Just a few days after the close of the October Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team (TRT) meeting in Providence, RI, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that a third North Atlantic right whale had been found dead approximately 100 miles east of Nantucket. The death underscores the urgency of the discussions of the 50-plus member group of public and private organizations and agencies, whose task since 1997 has been to protect endangered large whales from the entanglement threat presented by commercial fishing along the Atlantic seaboard.
The meeting began with formal welcomes by the Deputy Assistant of NOAA Fisheries, Sam Rauch, and Regional Administrator of NOAA’s Greater Atlantic Office, Michael Pentony, each of whom emphasized the importance of the TRT coming together to identify further protections for North Atlantic right whales.
Sean Hayes, protected species branch chief at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, presented the highlights of a Technical Memo, “North Atlantic Right Whales – Evaluating Their Recovery Challenges in 2018.” He was quickly met with a of chorus of complaints against the paper, released the week before the meeting. Patrice McCarron, the Maine Lobstermen’s Assocation’s (MLA) executive director, said she was shocked by both the lack of data to substantiate claims made in the paper, and the misuse of data on Maine’s lobster industry. “It is completely unacceptable for the agency [NMFS] to have zero understanding of a fishery that they have been regulating for over 20 years. The paper fundamentally erodes trust between the agency and the industry, making it difficult for us to work with them moving forward,” McCarron stated. Department of Marine Resources (DMR) Commissioner Keliher shared McCarron’s concerns, which she outlined in a scathing letter sent to the Northeast Fisheries Science Center.
Of particular concern was a conclusion on the effects of right whale protection measures from 2015. The report stated that Maine lobstermen are using stronger lines to haul their traps because, under the regulations, they must put more traps on a trawl when fishing offshore in order to reduce the number of vertical lines in the water. However, as Commissioner Keliher and McCarron both pointed out, the report gave no evidence to support the claim. NOAA has no data on how whale entanglement rates, especially fatalities, have changed since the 2015 rope regulations were enacted, Keliher stated.
“It’s really disappointing that there is just no accountability for that paper,” McCarron commented after the meeting. “In addition to singling out the northeast lobster fishery, and the Maine lobster fishery in particular, it ignores Canadian culpability in the right whale decline and the fact that Canada has no plans to enact whale protection regulations outside of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.”
The purpose of the meeting was to review seven proposals submitted by TRT members to strengthen protections for large whales from entanglement in commercial fishing gear. While no binding decisions were to be made at the meeting, the goal was to identify a suite of potential recommendations to reduce large whale entanglements in fishing gear to be evaluated and considered for refinement at the March 2019 ALWTRT meeting. Those proposals ranged from trap reductions, requirements from VTR and VMS, closures, weak rope, capping rope diameter, increased gear marking, and ropeless fishing. Participants were asked to score those proposals from 1 to 4 then evaluate them based on the average score.
“Trap reductions do not seem to be on the table as a whale protection measure. There was no traction on that proposal,” McCarron said. “The conservation and research groups continue to push hard for ropeless fishing, despite the fact that is still very much in the experimental phase. They are hyper-focused on testing ropeless fishing to work out the kinks and see if it can be scaled for portions of the commercial fishery.” There was general agreement among the TRT members that ropeless fishing remains a medium-to long-range option because the technology is not yet available.
Another proposal called for lobstermen to use weak rope — lines that would break at 1,700 pounds of pressure — in the fishery. As DMR’s Erin Summers pointed out, many of the ropes used by Maine lobstermen and tested this summer by the department as part of its $714,000 three-year project funded by NOAA break below 1,700 pounds’ pressure. “Remember, weak rope doesn’t exist right now. No one is making it,” McCarron said. Maine’s fishing industry representatives urged the team to consider working with ropes that fishermen already own by exploring additional gear marking or capping end line rope diameters.
Environmental organizations also strongly favored a tried and true whale protection measure, closures. The Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction plan currently has nearly 32,000 square miles of seasonal whale protection closures in place. The most well-known closure is the Massachusetts Restricted Area, which encompasses 3,073 square miles in and around Cape Cod Bay, from February through April to protect large aggregations of feeding right whales. The closure has been extended into May in recent years due to continued presence of right whales.
“We talked about coming up with criteria for a closed area, such things as whether it’s a foraging area, if there’s a certain density of whales there, how long it would be in place, how to repeal it,” McCarron said.
The TRT will meet next in March 2019, to finalize its recommendations to NMFS. If the TRT is unable to come to consensus on recommendations, the agency is still required to ensure the continued existence of North Atlantic right whales. This task is made more difficult as the whales continue to travel into unprotected Canadian waters in search of their preferred food, copepods.
McCarron admits that the meeting was frustrating and that no consensus of approach emerged. “We were successful in getting our message across, however, that the Fisheries Science Center’s paper was unacceptable and that we are extremely concerned that Canada has no plans to protect the whales outside of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. NMFS can’t achieve its Potential Biological Removal (PRB) goal without Canada,” she said.

Share This Story:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *