BAR HARBOR — Maine lobstermen and their representatives, along with state fisheries regulators, continue in the trenches of debates about how much the Maine lobster fishery is implicated in the decline of the North Atlantic right whale.
Ongoing efforts to protect the whales from entanglement with fishing gear may result in two different new sets of regulations, Sarah Cotnoir, resource coordinator for the Maine Department of Marine Resources, and Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, told the Zone B Council last week.
The two sets of regulations come from parallel processes under two federal laws, the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Current “whale rules” such as sinking groundline requirements and limits on vertical lines, are part of the former.
NOAA Fisheries created the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan under the auspices of the MMPA “to reduce injuries and deaths of large whales due to incidental entanglement in fishing gear.”
McCarron is a member of the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, which includes representatives of state and federal groups to recommend changes to the plan.
“Maine has rope in the water, so we are actively engaged in the plan, but the data do not appear to show that it is Maine lobster gear causing serious injury and mortality [in right whales],” McCarron said. “Since 2016, most [deaths from entanglement] were confirmed in Canadian snow crab gear or the gear was unknown.”
Under the MMPA, the groups working on the plan must compare numbers of whale deaths and serious injuries with something called “potential biological reduction.” That is defined as the maximum number of animals that may be removed from a population while still allowing the stock to maintain the “optimum sustainable population.”
The second set of potential new regulations is what’s new. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates the lobster fishery, has begun “looking at its authority to manage lobster and its impact on right whales,” McCarron said. “The technical committee has been tasked to look at options for endline reductions and/or trap limits to see how they might benefit whales.”
That’s happening at the same time as the National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS) Protected Species Division is at work on a “biological opinion” on the status of the right whales under the ESA. If the biological opinion includes a finding that the species is in jeopardy, it could mean much more drastic regulation changes.
“It looks at all issues that affect the survival of right whales, including human interactions, environmental factors, pollution and sublethal impacts,” McCarron said. “If ASMFC moves forward with a management action, NMFS would consider how it would benefit whales in the biological opinion. If ASMFC were to act, it would be to minimize the lobster industry’s interaction with right whales and therefore avoid a jeopardy finding against the fishery.”
The results of the biological opinion from NMFS are expected in the next few months.