NOAA’s whale framework draws fire from fishermen, conservationists

BAR HARBOR — A framework released by the National Marine Fisheries Service last month that calls for reducing risks to the endangered North Atlantic right whale in federal fisheries has been criticized both by conservationists and lobstermen, though for different reasons.  

The framework was included in the service’s long-awaited biological opinion and requires the reduction of risks to the whales by a cumulative 98 percent in the next 10 years. 

The exact measures to ensure this reduction have yet to be determined and are expected later this year, but conservationists have heavily criticized the 10-year timeline, which they argue is much too slow and not in line with rules under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

“A lot of the conservation community feel that the timeline that NOAA has laid out in the bi-op may not hold up legally,” said Zack Klyver, the director of science at Blue Planet Strategies. 

Klyver and other conservationists said that under the act, the federal government is supposed to institute a plan that will get potential deaths down to almost zero annually within six months, but the fisheries service’s plan only gets there after several years.

“What they’ve suggested is they start much higher and over a 10-year period bring it down to zero,” he said.  

Klyver has been looking for opportunities to test potential ropeless fishing with hybrid trawls offshore and hoped that some fishermen might be open to it as new rules are put in place. 

The fisheries service was ordered by a federal court to come up with a new biological opinion because the fisheries were in violation of the Endangered Species Act. The opinion is required to keep the fishery open.  

The opinion from NMFS and the proposed rules were troubling to Regina Asmustis-Silvia, the executive director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation.  

She felt that NMFS was gambling with a species that has fewer than 400 individuals left.  

“It’s like trying to get out of debt by buying lottery tickets for the next 10 years,” she said.  

Asmustis-Silvia was also concerned NMFS is only looking at the federal fisheries and not state ones as well, even though she said they had the power to do so, and worried that some of the proposals in the framework were unproven and could push the divide between fishermen and conservationists even further.  

“They will do things that will impact the fishing industry, but don’t know if it will benefit right whales,” she said.  

Sharon Young, the marine issues director for the Humane Society for the United States, called the biological opinion “disappointing” and “inadequate.”

Members of Maine’s lobster industry have maintained that they are not the ones responsible for the decline of right whales and felt they are being unfairly punished with onerous regulations.  

Proposed rules within the framework include adding more traps to each buoy line to reduce the number of vertical lines, inserting weak links in ropes so entangled whales can break free, restrictions on some fishing areas during times when whales are predicted to be there and the use of color-coded rope to identify the origin of gear found entangled on whales — a practice that Maine has already adopted. 

The service is expected to finalize the rules later this year. 

Patrice McCarron, the executive director of the Maine Lobstermen Association, appreciated that the biological opinion was delivered on time, but was extremely concerned about assumptions in NMFS’s projections.  

“They assume all worst-case (scenarios),” she said. “There’s nothing in there to allow for conditions to improve.”  

She also felt that the report was holding Maine fishermen accountable for threats that were coming from Canada and strikes by other vessels.  

McCarron was glad to see that there was an evaluation process in the 10-year plan, which could give fishermen more breathing room if things go well.

“The fact that they talk about adaptive management is positive,” she said. “Potentially they’ll have new data and some of those could be rectified.” 

But if fully implemented, she feared for the future of lobstering in Maine.  

“The fishery as we know it will not exist if all of those phases are implemented,” she said. 

Governor Janet Mills has also aired concerns about the NMFS’s report, and state Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher sent an FAQ about the opinion to fishermen last week.  

“The good news is that the Bi-Op has a no-jeopardy finding and it was issued ahead of the May 31 court ordered deadline, authorizing federal fisheries to continue to operate under the (Endangered Species Act),” he wrote. “Unfortunately, the Bi-Op outlines a series of risk reductions over the next 10 years that will significantly impact the lobster fishery … In total the Bi-Op calls for a 98 percent risk reduction over 10 years, which means only one thing — a complete reinvention of the fishery as we know it.”

Ethan Genter

Ethan Genter

Former reporter for the Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander, Ethan covered maritime news and the town of Bar Harbor.
Ethan Genter

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