At the Forum: NOAA Officials Answer Tough Questions About Whale Plan

From left to right: John Quinn NEFMC, John Hare, NEFSC, Michael Petony NMFS, Cisco Werner, NOAA Fisheries, Chris Oliver, NOAA Fisheries. Mike Young photo

A panel of five officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spoke to and answered questions from a largely polite audience of lobstermen and others at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum in March.
Chris Oliver, the head of NOAA Fisheries based in Washington, D.C., stated the obvious when he said, “A lot of people are not terribly thrilled with the proposed 60% risk reduction target. Many are not happy with DMR’s (Department of Marine Resources) plan either.”
He said he was frustrated over how the media reported on NOAA’s response to the DMR’s proposed whale plan. He emphasized that the NOAA Fisheries did not reject DMR’s proposed plan to protect right whales from mortality or serious injury but rather pointed out to DMR that the plan fell short of NOAA’s 60% risk reduction goal. To achieve that goal, Maine’s plan will be evaluated with the plans from Massachusetts and other states. “I’m sorry my letter to [Maine Department of Marine Resources] Commissioner Keliher was read as a rejection because it wasn’t,” said Michael Pentony, Regional Administrator for the Greater Atlantic Region Fisheries Office, who sat next to Oliver.
Oliver reiterated that the vast majority of fishing gear in New England waters at the moment is lobster gear and that is why the lobster fishery is being asked to reduce vertical lines. He also stated that the agency is talking with counterparts in Canada, urging them to do more to protect right whales when in Canadian waters. “Canada is making a number of promising efforts,” he said, referring to mandatory gear marking requirements and dynamic area closure programs recently announced.
Lobstermen and others questioned elements of the agency’s right whale plan, specifically the 60% risk reduction target. Pentony said that if the plans offered by Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island do not achieve that percentage, NMFS will look at offshore fishing areas to make up the difference.

“We’ve done everything we were asked to do. When they were having more babies, all was good. If you show us we’re killing them, we’d do whatever you asked of us. But they are dying in Canada. We just don’t see that the whales are dying because of us Maine fishermen.”

Phillip Torrey, Winter Harbor

Kristan Porter, president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA), pointed out that NMSF’s decision support tool, a computer model which is being developed to evaluate the percent risk reduction of actions proposed within each state’s whale plan, received a scathing report from the peer review panel. Given the high uncertainty of the tool’s output, he questioned how such a model could accurately measure the risk reduction of proposed management measures.
“The purpose of a peer review is to criticize,” responded Jon Hare, Science and Research Director of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center. “The peer review report agreed with the general approach and suggested improvements. We are doing the short-term improvements now and will work on the longer term.” He added that the computer model will inform the agency’s decision, not make the decision itself.

It was a standing room crowd at the NOAA panel discussion. Photo by Mike Young

Patrice McCarron, MLA executive director, said that NMFS made a mistake when it assumed that lobster gear was the sole source of harm to right whales from human activities. “The New England lobster fishery is the only one targeted by NOAA to do something. Management must be based on sound science, not assumption,” she said.
The Take Reduction Team focused on lobster fishing initially, responded Pentony, because it is the predominant fixed gear in New England. When NMFS’s Biological Opinion is released (in July), it will take into account all fixed gear. He also acknowledged that serious injury and mortality events have occurred in Canadian waters in the past few years but, “It is not within our control to make Canada take action. The hole gets bigger whenever deaths occur, period.”
Phil Torrey, a Winter Harbor lobsterman, spoke for many when he expressed deep frustration with NMFS’ approach. “We’ve done everything we were asked to do. When they were having more babies, all was good. If you show us we’re killing them, we’d do whatever you asked of us. But they are dying in Canada. We just don’t see that the whales are dying because of us Maine fishermen.”
McCarron echoed Torrey’s words. “The impacts of what happens in Canada directly affects us here. NOAA leadership should be concerned. Whales are dying and they are dying there. We are left picking up the pieces.”

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