Scientists weigh in on whale risk tool

U.S. Sen. Angus King (right), Fiona de Koning of Trenton-based Acadia Aqua Farms and James Markos of Maine Shellfish Co. discuss issues facing Maine’s seafood industry during the senator’s visit to the Ellsworth company’s Water Street facility last week. King also made stops at Maine Coast Sea Vegetables in Hancock and at the Greenhead Lobster Co. and Pemaquid Mussel Farms processing plants in Bucksport. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTO BY STEPHEN RAPPAPORT

ELLSWORTH — The word is out, almost, on what a panel of independent scientists thinks about the controversial “decision support tool” used by NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service last spring when it drafted proposed rules aimed at protecting endangered North Atlantic right whales and other large marine mammals from entanglement with fishing gear.

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 Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team (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. The team includes fishermen, scientists, representatives of conservation organizations and fisheries management officials from the federal government and from every state along the Atlantic Seaboard from Maine to Florida.

Data collected by NOAA show that, since the beginning of 2017, seventy percent of right whale deaths attributable to human-related causes (21) have occurred in Canadian waters while 30 percent (nine) occurred in U.S. waters. Not all of those deaths were clearly attributable to entanglement with fishing gear. Despite the disparity, NOAA insisted that U.S. interests must take steps to reduce the risk to right whales by 50 percent and is calling on Maine lobstermen to reduce the number of vertical lines that connect traps to surface buoys they use by half.

The TRT members from Maine objected to the use of the decision support tool because it had not been subject to the “peer review” 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.

Shortly before Thanksgiving, a panel of three independent scientists gathered in Woods Hole, Mass., to evaluate the controversial decision support tool. Their charge was to determine whether the tool provides “a scientifically credible basis for developing management advice” and also to consider the impact of gear used in fisheries other than for lobster.

In a Feb. 12 letter to U.S. Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) released last week, Chris Oliver, the NOAA assistant administrator for fisheries, reported that the panel had completed its work in “late December” and delivered individual peer reviews and “a draft summary report” to the agency. According to Oliver, the fisheries service is currently “reviewing” the reports and plans to release them to the TRT and the public “in the near future.”

Oliver’s letter drew a swift response from King.

“As I said at the NOAA scoping session in Ellsworth last August, I am committed to making sure NOAA uses the best science available to protect right whales without unfairly burdening Maine’s lobster industry,” King said in an email on Monday. “I will continue working with NOAA, the Maine congressional delegation and our state’s lobster industry to find a solution that reduces risks to right whales, supports Maine’s iconic industry and holds Canadian fishermen accountable.”

It is unclear what impact, if any, the peer review report will have on NOAA.

In his letter, Oliver said the fisheries agency would “consider the panelists’ feedback” about whether the support tool was scientifically valid and useful “in supporting the alternatives and analyses” for crafting the whale protection rules and the Draft Environmental Impact Statement required to justify them. But NMFS will also consider some grim statistics.

According to Oliver, between 2000 and 2018, of 10 right whale entanglements that were “determined to be caused” by U.S. fishing gear and could be “generally attributed” to the fishery in which the gear was used, seven were caused by lobster gear. Oliver also noted that more than 93 percent of all vertical endlines along the Atlantic Coast (ignoring those found in nearshore fisheries in the Mid-Atlantic region such as Chesapeake Bay crab pots) belonged to the lobster and crab fisheries.

Arguing against the new whale protection rules as currently proposed, the Department of Marine Resources, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association and other critics point out that, between 2017 and 2019, thirty right whales have died and stranded along the North Atlantic coast. Of those deaths, more than two-thirds, 21, occurred in Canadian waters, yet the fisheries service is requiring U.S. fisheries to shoulder 50 percent of the risk reduction effort. Of 10 right whale deaths last year, nine occurred in Canadian waters.

Oliver and other NOAA representatives met with Canadian fisheries and shipping regulators last August and again last month to address Canada’s response to the large number of right whale deaths over the past three years. “(W)e continue to engage with the government of Canada to reduce vessel strike and entanglement risk in Canadian waters,” he said.

Of the nine right whale deaths that occurred in U.S. waters between 2017 and 2019, one was caused by a vessel strike and the cause of death could not be determined in two cases. Of the other seven deaths, only one was conclusively attributed to entanglement in fishing gear. In the other cases, entanglement was “suspected” or considered “probable.” The determination of the cause of death of a dead right whale discovered off Long Island, N.Y., last fall is as yet undetermined.

Stephen Rappaport

Stephen Rappaport

Waterfront Editor at The Ellsworth American
Stephen Rappaport has lived in Maine for nearly 30 years. A lifelong sailor, he spends as much time as possible messing about in boats. [email protected]

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