New analysis shows NOAA must look beyond the lobster fishery to protect right whales

In late August, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) sent a pointed letter to NOAA Chief Chris Oliver officially withdrawing support for the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) 60% risk reduction target and the assignment of responsibility for reducing entanglement risk to right whales solely to the lobster fishery.
The action came about as a result of the MLA’s analysis of right whale entanglements, serious injuries and mortalities which revealed that NMFS data contained errors that significantly impact the understanding of human causes for these events. MLA’s findings reveal the Canadian snow crab fishery accounts for 31% of right whale serious injury and mortality, gillnet and netting gear represent 13%, unknown trap/pot gear represents 4%, and U.S. trap/pot gear represents just 4%. U.S. and Canadian vessel strikes account for the remaining 48%.
“NMFS’ own data show that the lobster fishery is the least significant cause of right whale serious injury or mortality, while ship strikes, gillnets and the Canadian snow crab fishery pose much greater risks. The MLA cannot responsibly recommend its members act alone to undertake changes in fishing practices when whales continue to be killed by ships or entangled in other fishing gears which are not included in the current rulemaking,” Patrice McCarron, executive director of the MLA, said. “The MLA remains committed to identify new whale protections for the Maine lobster fishery that accurately reflect the risk posed by this fishery.”
The MLA undertook its examination of NMFS data following the April 2019 Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team (TRT) meeting due to unresolved concerns with the timeliness and accuracy of information provided to TRT members. The MLA concluded that the data NMFS presented to the TRT to serve as the basis for recommendations contained serious flaws.
The MLA’s analysis shows that the NMFS’ stipulated risk reduction target is unsupported by the best available data. NMFS incorrectly allocated the full responsibility for U.S. risk reduction to the Northeast lobster fishery, ignoring the role of other fisheries known to entangle right whales. It under-represented the role of Canadian fisheries in its calculations by ignoring the most recent entanglement data. NMFS also did not investigate trends in right whale entanglement in unknown gear. As a result, the data presented to the TRT overstated the share of risk attributable to the Northeast lobster fishery and downplayed the role of other gears and Canada.
“Drafting regulations that only affect lobstermen does not scratch the surface in addressing known human causes of right whale decline and guarantees that the rules will be insufficient to reverse the downward trend,” McCarron said. “Maine lobstermen stand ready to do our part to help save right whales, but NMFS must ensure that the Canadians, the shipping industry and other fishing gear sectors join us in taking responsibility for their role in the crisis.”