Federal right whale legislation floated

ELLSWORTH — Introduced to the U.S. Senate last week was the Right Whale Coexistence Act of 2022, led by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and joined by fellow Democrats. The proposed bill seeks to help right whale conservation efforts “by supporting and providing financial resources for conservation programs and projects.”

The legislation adds to the swirl of regulatory and legal action aimed at protecting the right whales — but at a cost to Maine lobstermen and the $1 billion that the industry is estimated to add to the state’s economy each year.

The Right Whale Coexistence Act of 2022 aims to support through grants and other financial assistance conservation programs that curtail the effect of human activity on right whales. Right whales are injured and killed from ship strikes as well as being entangled in fishing lines.

The North Atlantic right whale is protected under the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973. The number of right whales has steadily declined since 2010 and the estimated population dropped 30 percent from 2019 to 2020, according to federal monitoring programs. It now stands at below 340, the lowest in two decades, and the reported number of breeding females is small.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that more than 85 percent of the whales have been entangled at least once. However, Maine lobstermen have questioned the federal data on population numbers along with whale presence in Maine fishing waters.

“No deaths can be, or ever have been, attributed to Maine lobster gear,” Cranberry Isles Fishermen’s Co-op member Jack Merrill wrote to The American in March 2021, one more voice from state lobstermen and their advocates disputing NOAA’s position that Maine lobster gear is entangling and endangering right whales. Merrill, who also is an advisor to the Lobster Institute and a Maine Lobstermen’s Association board member, echoed other voices that NOAA’s ruling is based on the possibility, not probability.

Conservationists disagree.

“It is frustrating to hear ‘I’ve never seen a right whale in Maine’ over and over again when there is evidence that there are right whales in Maine waters every single month of the year,” Brooksville-based scientist and longtime right whale advocate Bill McWeeney stated in 2020, as NOAA worked with New England fisheries to reduce vertical lines. “Just because you do not see something does not mean it is not there.”

By May 1, lobstermen in Maine will have to adhere to new federal regulations designed to lessen the number of fishing lines. A portion of Lobster Management Area 1 will be closed during the time whales gather and migrate.

Governor Janet Mills and the state’s congressional delegation are pushing for a delay in implementation of the rules to July 1 to give fishermen more time to buy and implement ropes and the weak links required to allow whales to break free of entanglements.

Because whales don’t recognize country borders and are injured and killed by Canadian vessels and fishing lines along with those in the U.S., the proposed Right Whale Coexistence Act of 2022 calls for the U.S. and Canadian governments to “work together to reduce lethal and sub-lethal effects of human activities” on the whales. Canada now uses real-time visual and acoustic monitoring to manage the whale presence and adjusts vessels speeds and fishing restrictions when right whales are detected.

The act also recognizes that climate change has affected right whale numbers, which “indicate that additional actions are necessary to reverse” the decline of right whales. As the whales’ food source — tiny copepods that right whales consume in gargantuan numbers — move to cooler waters, the whales follow. Additionally, the warming Atlantic Ocean has resulted in a winter copepod population decline of as much as 90 percent, the Portland Press Herald reported in 2019.

No specific funds or establishment of fund accounts for right whale protections is included in the bill. Rather, “subject to the availability of funds and in consultation with other federal officials, the Secretary of Commerce shall provide competitive financial assistance, including multiyear grants, for projects designed to reduce the lethal and sub-lethal effects of human activities on North Atlantic right whales.”

Under the act, projects may be submitted by eligible applicants: relevant state and tribal agencies, research institutions and nonprofits that have expertise in the conservation of right whales and also by any individual or entity deemed “appropriate” by the Secretary of Commerce. Appropriate individuals and entities include NOAA-approved large whale disentanglement teams, an owner or operator of a vessel and maritime equipment manufacturers and others who participate in “maritime activities.” Federal agencies are not allowed to lead projects, under the act, but may collaborate or partner on a project.

Funding awarded requires a 25 percent match by the person or agency proposing the project, although that can be waived if necessary for projects identified as high-priority.

The American reached out to the Maine Department of Marine Resources for comment, but staff has not had time to fully review the bill, Communications Director Jeff Nichols said.

Anne Berleant

Anne Berleant

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
News Reporter Anne Berleant covers news and features in Ellsworth, Mariaville, Otis, Amherst, Aurora, Great Pond and Osborn. When not reporting, find her hiking local trails, reading or watching professional tennis. Email her at [email protected]

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