Whale Protection Measures Likely on Two Fronts

Maine lobstermen may be forgiven for feeling as if they were under siege from all quarters. The federal government, through the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), and several national environmental organizations have the lobster industry in their sights because of the unprecedented deaths of 18 North Atlantic right whales in 2017 and an overall drop in the birth rate of these endangered marine mammals.

A fourth right whale calf was seen last month, giving hope to the long-term health of the population. Florida Fish & Wildlife Photo

Protection efforts are underway on two fronts: the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team (TRT) is considering management measures under the authority of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) while the ASMFC is considering measures to pre-empt more severe restrictions from the federal government if the lobster industry is found to jeopardize right whales under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The current “whale rules,” such as sinking groundline and limits on vertical lines, are mandated under the MMPA.
The goal of the TRT, which comprises more than 30 state and federal officials and organizations, is “to reduce injuries and deaths of large whales due to incidental entanglement in fishing gear.” The group is examining possible changes to the existing whale management plan — such as closures, expanded gear marking and gear modifications — to reduce the impact of Atlantic coast fisheries on right whales. The goal under the MMPA is to have less than one whale per year die or become seriously injured as a result of human activities. Under the MMPA, the TRT must compare the number of whale deaths and serious injuries with the potential biological removal (PBR) figure, which is currently less than one right whale per year.
Concurrently, NMFS’s Protected Species Division is at work on a “Biological Opinion” on the status of the right whales as required under the ESA. If the Biological Opinion finds that the lobster fishery jeopardizes the recovery of the right whale species, it could mean much more drastic regulation changes.
“The Biological Opinion looks at all issues that affect the survival of right whales, including human interactions, environmental factors, pollution and sublethal impacts,” Patrice McCarron, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) executive director, explained. The MLA has intervenor status in the court case prompting NMFS’s new Biological Opinion analysis. The Biological Opinion considers not only actions to reduce the severity of injury to right whales, but also the sublethal impacts of human activity on whales. New research has shown that entanglement in fishing gear may result in a decline in the health of entangled whales, particularly females.
This had led to the possibility of a second set of new regulations. Due to the likelihood that the lobster fishery could be found to jeopardize the recovery of right whales, the ASMFC is reviewing its lobster management plan with an eye toward reducing the fishery’s impact on right whales. The Lobster Technical Committee is examining whether reducing endlines or the number of traps might benefit whales. “If ASMFC moves forward with a management action, it would be to minimize the lobster industry’s interaction with right whales and therefore avoid a jeopardy finding against the fishery,” McCarron said.
“Maine lobstermen have rope in the water, so we are actively engaged in the plan. But the data do not show that it is Maine lobster gear causing serious injury and mortality [in right whales],” McCarron added. “Since 2016, most [deaths from entanglement] were confirmed in Canadian snow crab gear or the gear was unknown.”