DMR, NOAA struggle to find agreement on whale plan

In January the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) informed the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) that its proposal to reduce the risk of entanglement by North Atlantic right whales in lobster gear did not go far enough.
The proposal, known as “Maine’s proposed whale plan,” was submitted to NOAA on January 3. Since June 2019, the department held 19 public meetings to discuss the plan with lobstermen and receive public comment on it.

What next for Maine’s lobstermen? MLMC photo.

Maine’s proposed whale plan calls for reducing the number of vertical lines in the water from lobster traps by requiring increasing numbers of traps per endline, or trawling up, based on distance from shore. Right whale surveillance data indicate that right whales, while uncommon along the Maine coast, are more likely to be found further offshore than inshore. DMR’s proposal also includes the addition of 1,700-pound weak points in the rope used by lobstermen to allow any whale that may come in contact with a vertical line, to break free. The combination of requirements would provide at least a 52% reduction in risk from lobster gear to right whales, but the risk reduction resulting from weak points in lines fished in Maine’s exempt waters has not yet been calculated. In addition, a new gear marking scheme will be required on all buoy lines fished by Maine lobstermen beginning this fall.
Maine’s proposed whale plan also calls for a limited amount of flexibility in how the specific elements of the plan would be applied in different zones. This flexibility may be needed to address zone-specific safety and/or operational concerns arising from the unique challenges posed by local fishing conditions and fishing methods.
In a letter sent to DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher on January 10, Michael Pentony, Regional Administrator for NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Regional Office, stated that the agency appreciated DMR’s efforts “to reduce and mitigate risks to imperiled North Atlantic right whales,” but noted that Maine’s proposal did not meet the Take Reduction Team’s 60% risk reduction threshold.
In late February Keliher wrote back to Pentony arguing that NMFS did not fully assess credit for Maine’s proposed whale plan and asked the federal agency to credit the additional risk reduction gained by requiring weak points in vertical lines fished in Maine’s exempt waters. Keliher also noted that NMFS had not considered the risk reduction measures Maine has already imposed on gear fished in exempt waters. Those measures include restrictions on the use of floating rope on the surface, and the requirement that lobstermen have either all sinking buoy or groundline or a 600-pound breakaway at the buoy.
NMFS intends to publish its draft federal whale rules in July.