ELLSWORTH — A panel of scientists gathered in Woods Hole, Mass., last week to evaluate a controversial “decision support tool” used by NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service to design proposed rules aimed at protecting endangered North Atlantic right whales and other large marine mammals from entanglement with fishing gear.
Last spring, the NOAA Fisheries Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team (TRT) recommended that the fisheries service adopt new rules that would, among other requirements, force Maine lobstermen to remove from the water 50 percent of the vertical lines used to connect traps on the bottom to marker buoys on the surface. The team includes fishermen, scientists, representatives of conservation organizations and fishery management officials from the federal government and from every state from Maine to Florida.
When the fisheries service made its decision last spring on how best to reduce the risk to whales, it relied on a “Decision Support Tool” based on a poll of TRT members rather than extensive data collected over the years as to where the whales are found and how much interaction there has been between them and Maine lobster gear.
Data collected by NOAA show that since the beginning of 2017 70 percent of right whale deaths attributable to human-related causes (21) have occurred in Canadian waters while just 30 percent (nine) have occurred in U.S. waters. Not all of those deaths were clearly attributable to entanglement with fishing gear.
Despite this disparity, NOAA insisted that U.S. interests must take steps to reduce the risk to right whales by 50 percent.
At the time, the Maine delegation objected to the use of the decision support tool because it had not been subject to peer review, a process in which an independent panel of experts determines the adequacy of the data and methods to, in this case, form the basis for new management rules.
Last Wednesday, a panel of scientists began a three-day peer review to evaluate the decision support tool developed to help understand relative risk of right whale entanglement in fishing gear off New England and the relative reduction in risk that would be achieved by different fishery management measures.
The international peer review panel includes: Julie van der Hoop, a marine biologist who studies whales at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts; Jason How, a lobster expert from Australia; and Don Bowen, a marine scientist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, N.S.
The panel will consider whether the decision tool provides “a scientifically credible basis for developing management advice” and will likely also consider the impact of gear used in fisheries other than the lobster fishery.
Once their review is complete, the panel will produce a final report that includes several elements.
First, the panel will disclose its evaluation of the data used in the decision support tool to arrive at a recommended suite of actions and risk reduction data generated by the tool.
Second, the panel will comment on whether it was even appropriate to use the decision support tool to evaluate relative entanglement risk to right whales and give its assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of using the tool to compare management measures. The report also will make recommendations as to research that could improve the decision support tool.
Finally, the panel will evaluate whether the methods used by the decision support tool represent “the best available scientific approach” for apportioning the relative responsibility for human-caused whale mortality between Canada and the United States.
According to NOAA, as of Sept. 30, 18 North Atlantic right whales have died in U.S. waters and 27 in Canadian waters since the beginning of 2012.
Since early June 7, 2017, a strikingly high number of right whale deaths have occurred, primarily in Canada, and were declared an Unusual Mortality Event by NOAA. In 2017, there were a total of 17 confirmed dead stranded whales, 12 of them in Canadian waters. In 2018, three dead whales stranded in U.S. waters. So far this year, nine whales have stranded in Canada and one in U.S. waters.
The current total number of deaths for the mortalities for the Unusual Mortality Event is 30 dead stranded whales, 21 (or 70 percent) in Canada and nine (30 percent) in the U.S. waters.