ELLSWORTH — At what cost does saving the North Atlantic right whale come?
A Jan. 20 public meeting on the latest proposal to reduce the risk of whale entanglements in fishing lines focused on northern and eastern Maine lobster fishing. The virtual meeting continued discussions between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and lobstermen that began in 2019. The Maine Department of Marine Resources submitted its own risk-reduction proposal in January 2020 that NOAA said did not fully meet its goals.
At this latest meeting, local lobstermen echoed similar concerns they aired when discussions started two years ago: NOAA is relying on incomplete and outdated data, and fishermen are not seeing right whales in Maine waters. NOAA scientists agree that more data would be useful.
“We don’t have a lot of recent data to let us know that they’re not still going there,” said Colleen Coogan, a NOAA biologist who is part of its whale Take Reduction Team (TRT). “Maine has been working pretty aggressively trying to get more data.”
NOAA relies on whale habitat density data reported by the Navy and used by a Duke University-developed model. The agency also uses its own model that calculates the rate of co-occurrence, when right whales and lobstermen are in the same area at the same time, elevating the risk of entanglements. Data also is gathered from plane sightings, although NOAA runs few flights over the Gulf of Maine, favoring areas with a higher whale density.
“The data model results [lead us] to look at locations that show up as being areas of concern,” NOAA Fisheries research biologist Burton Shank said. “We’re really looking closely to see if that spatial distribution has changed.”
The data indicates that “the number of right whales has gone down in the state of Maine,” Shank said.
But wherever the whales are, their numbers are dwindling. To abide by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act, “biological removal levels” of right whales need to be maintained at specific levels. For 2021, that level decreased from 0.9 annual deaths, from a few years ago, to 0.7 deaths, as the population falls below 400 whales. That means even one death is too much.
NOAA had earlier proposed “trawling up” — adding more traps to one line — and inserting weak links in rope so entangled whales could break free, as measures to reduce the risk to right whales. Both concern lobstermen for reasons of safety and expense. But the proposed rule NOAA presented adds seasonal closures in lobster zones C, D and E inside Lobster Management Area 1 — the area 6 to 12 nautical miles from the Maine exemption line that abuts Lobster Management Area 3 (LMA 3) and lies in federal waters.
As proposed, the area would be closed to fishing with vertical lines from October through the end of January, a time when NOAA says right whales are traveling through. It is also a time when fishing is plentiful, lobstermen say.
“That’s where we make our money that we get to survive on for the year,” said Amy Simmons, whose husband, Gregory, fishes out of Friendship in Zone D. “Without that, it’s kind of a scary thought.”
Lobstermen also found unrealistic NOAA’s notion that fishermen can relocate into neighboring LMA 3 during the closure of the LMA 1 area. They questioned how the area set for closure so neatly follows the LMA 1 and LMA 3 line.
“I think it’s miraculous it just follows the Area 1 and Area 3 lines and it’s fine on one side and not on the other. I’d have more faith if it crossed [over] those magic lines we have on the ocean,” said lobsterman and Zone C Council member David Tarr of Brooklin.
“When you set [your] traps in a different area it’s going to reduce everyone’s catch in that area,” said Jacob Thompson, who fishes off of Vinalhaven.
Add in that lobstermen must fish 51 percent of their traps in their own zone and their concern only grew. Plus, several lobstermen said NOAA’s estimate of 45 boats that would be affected by the seasonal closure was low. NOAA biologist Colleen Coogan said that while it may not represent the total number of boats that fish in the area, it’s the number counted on any given day.
And while ropeless fishing would be permitted during the closure, ropeless fishing is not yet here for lobstermen. Using acoustics-based technology to lower and haul up traps, the system eliminates the need for vertical lines and buoys. But units are prohibitively expensive. One conservation group was quoted $2,000 to $3,000 each for a test study, according to a 2019 Smithsonian Institution article, which is many, many times the cost of a single trap-and-line. And, while less expensive systems are being developed for commercial fishing, Coogan said, “It’s going to require a lot of government support.”
Coogan said the new rule could go into effect this summer. But there is more to be done. NOAA is taking public comments through March 1. And virtual public hearings are scheduled for Feb. 23, for southern Maine, and Feb. 24, for northern Maine. Its proposal includes “non-preferred” alternatives to some measures, including one that leaves LMA 1 open year-round. And Maine lobstermen are discussing conservation equivalencies, measures that could be used in place of some of the proposed measures for the same risk reduction result. The DMR is working on a response to the proposed rule, Director of Communications Jeff Nichols said.
NOAA’s Take Reduction Team is tasked with reducing the risk of serious injury or mortality to right whales, a federally protected endangered species, by 60 percent as its population continues to decline faster than its birth rate. In more than half of whale deaths, evidence of rope entanglement is found, Coogan said, and 85 percent of whales sighted show signs of entanglement. Since 2017, thirty whale mortalities have been documented, 21 in Canadian waters and nine in the United States. Ship strikes, another cause of whale injury and death, do not fall under the TRT’s purview, Coogan noted.
NOAA is accepting public comments on the proposed rule through March 1. To submit a comment, visit www.regulations.gov/comment?D=NOAA-NMFS-2020-0031-0006.