After a disastrous 2017 for North Atlantic right whales — 17 deaths and no births — we face the question of how to ensure that these iconic large whales survive in our increasingly busy coastal waters. An additional three right whales deaths were documented in 2018, bringing the loss over the past two years to about 5% of the total population, coming on the heels of a population decline that began in 2010.
We are getting some good news this year as at least seven calves have been born during this calving season so far, and while this is a welcomed improvement over the zero births last year, seven calves is still below the long-term average, and a level of growth that is not sufficient to sustain this endangered population. And yet I believe by working together we can find a way to have both a healthy right whale population and a sustainable and lucrative lobster fishery.
The reasons for right whales’ decline are complicated, but overall appear largely related to ecosystem shifts occurring in the Northwest Atlantic. As the Gulf of Maine gets warmer, the prey right whales rely on — tiny copepods and zooplankton — are moving. Right whales must then spend more time and more energy simply searching for adequate food sources. The farther they travel for looking for food, the less energy they have available for reproduction. As they travel into new areas looking for food, they face new threats including entanglement in gear or being hit by vessels that are not used to seeing these whales in their waters. In recent years, as a result of the additional energy needed simply to find food, calving intervals for adult females have increased from one calf expected every four or
five years for each reproductively mature female to one calf every 10 years — a significant decline in the birth rate.
Risk of Entanglement
Over the past two decades, the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team has developed protective management measures including seasonal fixed gear closures and numerous gear modifications. The Team consists of 61 people representing the fishing industry, federal and state managers, conservationists, and scientists. Due in part to the Team’s work, we saw steady population growth among right whales, from about 270 right whales in 1990 to about 480 in 2010.
Since 2010, however, the population has been on a downward trajectory, with only 411 individuals estimated at the end of 2017. Despite the efforts and sacrifices of fishermen, entanglement in fishing gear continues to be a major problem. New England Aquarium researchers report that 85% of right whales have entanglement scars, and the number of right whales with entanglement scars has gone up every year for the past several decades.
In 2018, we observed 6 right whales and 33 humpback whales alive and newly entangled in both the U.S. and Canada, but many more exhibited scars indicative of previous entanglements. However, as whales are able to travel vast distances dragging entangling gear, we do not always know where the gear came from, making addressing this problem more challenging and the need for data more pressing.
More Data on Maine’s Lobster Fishery is Needed
In February of last year, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) Lobster Management Board adopted Addendum XXVI to its lobster management plan to expand the data collected from New England’s largest fixed gear fishery, the lobster fishery. Fishing vessel trip reports are not yet required for all federally permitted lobster vessels as only those vessels that also hold federal permits in other fisheries (e.g., groundfish, monkfish, etc.) are required to submit catch data, and not all states currently require 100% reporting of state-permitted vessels. While slightly more than half of the approximately 3,000 federal lobster permit holders currently have a requirement to report, the majority of those who don’t report hail from Maine ports.
Addendum XXVI recommends that NOAA Fisheries expand its harvester reporting requirements to all federal lobster permit holders, and that the State of Maine expand harvester reporting requirements to all state lobster license holders within five years. Expanded reporting would improve our understanding of where the fishery is taking place, and provide more information that would help clarify the entanglement risk of endangered whales in lobster fishing gear. Consistent with this request from the Commission, we are in the process of analyzing the harvester reporting requirements in a rulemaking action.
At its recent meeting in February 2019, the Lobster Board initiated a new addendum to the lobster management plan to consider measures that could reduce the risk of large whales entanglement in lobster trap gear. The addendum will consider up to a 40% reduction in vertical lines through trap limits, gear configurations, seasonal closures and other measures, as well as eliminating the 10% replacement tag provision, which allows lobstermen to purchase extra trap tags in excess of their trap allocation to cover routine trap losses.
Working with the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team
As the ASMFC works to address data needs and entanglement risk through the lobster management plan, we have also been busy working with the Take Reduction Team. The Team met numerous times over the past 18 months to look into the feasibility of new conservation measures. The Team discussed using weaker rope (1,700-pound breaking strength), improving gear marking, and explored the concept of ropeless fishing. The Team was focused on three areas in its discussions: reducing the probability of entanglement; reducing the severity of entanglement; and gathering data to inform risk reduction.
In late March, the Team will convene subgroups in preparation for an April or early May meeting. To ensure productive deliberations at these meeting we have begun analyzing proposals from the Team. Specific ideas stemming from previous discussions ranged from modifying or adding seasonal fishery closures or restricting line strength or diameter of buoy lines to researching and phasing in ropeless fishing technology particularly for new fisheries that use vertical line. The Team will develop final recommendations at a late April/early May meeting which will then go to NOAA Fisheries for rulemaking.
Teamwork Critical to Finding Solutions
Tackling entanglements is critical to the recovery of the North Atlantic right whale population, and we can’t do it without the assistance and cooperation of those who know best how the lobster fishery interacts with large whales. The continued participation and enthusiasm of our industry partners is not just welcome, it is absolutely necessary to future success. Working together, with all of the talent, ingenuity, and perseverance of this dedicated Team, I believe that we can find solutions that will allow fishermen and whales to not only coexist, but to thrive.
If you have questions or comments about the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, please contact Patrice McCarron, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association’s Team representative, at 207-967-4555 or Colleen Coogan, NOAA Fisheries Take Reduction Team coordinator, at 978-281-9181.