Maine was well represented at the Take Reduction Team in October meeting by Erin Summers from DMR, Patrice McCarron from the MLA and four lobstermen — Dwight Carver, John Williams, Kristan Porter and Mike Sargent). The Maine contingent worked well together and ably represented Maine’s position. It was a long four-day meeting and our lobstermen gave up a lot of time and lost revenue to be there. They were all amazing and deserve many thanks from everyone in the lobster industry! All of the slides and meeting materials for the October TRT meeting are available online at www.greateratlantic.fisheries.noaa.gov/protected/whaletrp/trt/.
The Maine team repeated some core concerns throughout the meeting:
The Canadian snow crab fishery and ship strikes are responsible for the majority of the most recent spate of whale entanglements deaths.
Canada must come up to U.S. standards on whale regulations. Without Canadian regulations in place for all of the Canadian fixed gear fisheries, we will never have a full whale plan and will never be able to reach the PBR (Potential Biological Removal) rate for right whales [which is 0.9].
Ropeless fishing will not work for our commercial fisheries. Lobstermen do not have sole access to the ocean, and there are many technical, enforcement, economic and operational issues (scalability and gear conflict) which must be overcome.
Maine is willing to do more to help whales, but the solution must be scaled to the level of risk posed by our fishery. Maine is willing to work on additional gear marking and rope diameter and/or breaking strength caps, based on the outcome of DMR’s current work on Maine’s endlines.
There were several updates and presentations during the meeting.
NEFSC Technical Memo
Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) presented a summary of its Technical paper on the current risks posed to right whales. In this paper, they single out the Northeast lobster fishery and Maine lobster fishery as significant risks to right whales. They misuse lobster data to make their case, and do not provide any data to substantiate some of their claims. They play up entanglement concerns, downplay climate change, and under-represent Canada’s role in the right whale decline in recent years. DMR sent a scathing letter to NEFSC outlining many of its concerns. Erin Summers did a great job pushing NMFS for accountability, but the agency seemed very reluctant to acknowledge its errors or to take responsibility for such a scientifically-weak paper. Patrice McCarron reiterated DMR’s concerns and made a strong point that it is completely unacceptable for the agency to have zero understanding of a fishery it has regulated for over 20 years. The paper fundamentally erodes trust between the agency and the lobster industry, making it difficult for lobstermen to work with it on new whale measures. Sam Rauch, NMFS Deputy Director, noted that he heard Maine’s concerns loud and clear. It remains to be seen, however, if and how NMFS and NEFSC will respond to these facts.
There was an interesting update on whale entanglements, which showed the spike in entanglements and increase in serious injury and mortality (SI/M) from Canadian snow crab gear. The agency provided some initial data on rope diameter from gear retrieved from whales housed in the NMFS warehouse. As suspected, almost all of the gear removed from whales from 2013 to present is ½” or larger (there is no rope from 2013 or 2015 in this data set, and they have a small amount of 5/16” and 3/8” rope from 2016). All of the SI/M for cases where gear was removed from whales since 2003 involved rope ½” or larger, with the exception of a piece of 5/16” rope which was involved in a case from 2016, likely fished in combination with the larger rope.
The enforcement update was positive with a compliance rage of 92%, up from 87% last year. Of the total enforcement contacts, 88% were with the lobster industry. Broken down by area, 85% of the enforcement effort was in Area 1.
NEFSC Aerial Surveillance
The NEFSC no longer conducts broadscale surveys where they fly tracks looking for whales. Given these funding limits, they are not able to identify many whales. As a result, they fly where they think they will see whales, predominantly around Cape Cod Bay, Great South Channel and Nantucket. They rarely fly the Gulf of Maine because they sight so few whales there. Once they spot whales, they continue to fly that area to document as many individuals as possible. The rest of their resources have been in the Gulf of St. Lawrence over the past two years in order to help Canada ramp up its whale surveillance. NEFSC plans to redirect its resources back to the U.S. There is a separate surveillance effort around Florida and Georgia on the calving grounds where very few whales have been seen during past few years.
Preliminary Results from DMR Gear Study
Erin Summers presented some preliminary data from the ongoing DMR gear study. The study requires more lobstermen to respond to the online gear survey; staff will be calling lobstermen to increase the response rate. The results from breaking used vertical lines revealed some interesting facts. DMR staff have broken ropes sizes 5/16”, 11/32”, 3/8” and 7/16”. Straight ropes were broken (no knots or splices), as well as ropes with knots and splices. The results indicate that the maximum breaking strength so far for 3/8” rope with no knots or splices is around 1,900 pounds (average around 1,450 pounds). The maximum breaking strength of 7/16” rope with no knots or splices is around 2,500 pounds (average around 2,000 pounds). Ropes broke at a lower number of pounds around knots and splices; splices were slightly stronger than knots.
Review of Seven Right Whale Protection Proposals
The main goal of the TRT meeting was to review the seven proposals to increase protections for right whales. Proposed measures range from trap reductions, requirements from VTR and VMS, closures, capping rope diameter, increased gear marking, and ropeless fishing. The TRT was divided into four subgroups to review the proposals and look for areas of common ground. In general, the researchers and conservation groups supported weak ropes, closures, ropeless fishing, better reporting and gear marking; the fishing groups opposed ropeless fishing and had varying levels of support on some of the other measures such as gear modifications. Through the subgroups, the TRT agreed on some general areas for further analysis:
Ropeless fishing is a medium-to-long-term objective because the technology is not available. The conservation and researcher groups are pushing hard to get this technology tested, with varying support for using it in closed areas due to concern over its potential risk to whales if it fails. NMFS will look at developing a scaled approach to ropeless fishing with the near-term goal to develop the technology for use in the highest-risk areas for whales.
Closures will be considered for the highest-risk areas such as feeding areas where there are large and consistent aggregations of whales. There was some agreement on criteria for minimum conditions that could trigger a new closure.
Gear modifications are the most viable solution in the near-term. There was no real consensus on what they would be – weak rope, capping rope diameters, reduce number of vertical lines, or other modifications. There was some support to form a working group to further discuss options and use data from DMR’s vertical lines project.
NMFS was asked to look at weak links. If they are not working they should not be required.
NMFS will explore additional gear marking requirements.
Trap reductions did not receive much TRT support. The TRT instead sought to request that the ASMFC consider benefits to whales if trap reductions are moved forward under the lobster management plan.
The TRT recognized that ASMFC is already working on expanding reporting requirements and urged NMFS to work with ASMFC on potential VTR/VMS requirements.
NMFS will provide a meeting summary and will begin analyzing the various options discussed by the TRT. The conversation will resume in March 2019 at which time NMFS will expect a recommendation from the TRT. If there is no consensus, NMFS will likely recommend action on its own. It is unclear what the timeline for implementation of any new regulations would be. NMFS has indicated that new rules would follow the rulemaking process. However, it is possible that the release of a new Biological Opinion under the Endangered Species Act could require regulations to be implemented more quickly.