Commentary: Scientific data backs up NOAA Fisheries’ new rules

By Bill McWeeny

Thank you for publishing opinions about the right whale situation in The Ellsworth American on Dec. 16 by Jill Goldthwait, Jim Dow and Russell Wray.

I take issue with Jim Dow that Maine is not responsible for right whale entanglements. He states that the NOAA Fisheries based their new rules on “bad science” and that “the best available science does not support the agency’s plan.” The “bad science” Dow refers to is the lack of documented cases of right whales being entangled in Maine gear. He thinks that missing data makes bad science. But missing data is not bad science. The New England Aquarium and other research entities have been collecting data about right whales since the late 1970s. There is an overwhelming amount of data about right whales, so much so that scientists studying other whale species around the world use the right whale database as a model for their own research. The amount of data and peer-reviewed papers that have been published about North Atlantic right whales is unsurpassed by any other whale species being researched.

The scientists use this massive accumulation of data to help NOAA Fisheries set policy. NOAA Fisheries is standing on solid scientific ground when it closes LMA1 for four months of the year because sightings, acoustic detection data and modeling efforts show that area to be important to right whales during those four months. Unfortunately, Dow and the Maine Lobstermen’s Association ignore this information. The New England Aquarium researchers have collated evidence that shows there have been over 1,700 entanglements of right whales over a 40-year period — nearly 87 percent of the population has been entangled at least once with a majority entangled more than once. Yet, since many of these events leave only scars, we do not know where 99 percent of these cases happened. In addition, recent cryptic mortality research has shown that for every right whale mortality documented there are almost three more mortalities unobserved. This is the science being ignored. With almost all right whales experiencing entanglements, it is fair to assert entanglements are happening everywhere there are whales and endlines. Since Maine has the most endlines on the East Coast, and since right whales do swim in waters that Maine lobstermen fish in, the right whales must be acquiring some of their entanglement scars from Maine lobster gear. The overwhelming amount of entanglements backs this up. They must be happening everywhere, including Maine.

Goldthwait says whales are “rarely, if ever, seen” in inshore Maine waters. This year, NOAA Fisheries documented two minke whale entanglements in Maine inshore fishing gear. One of these whales died. Right whales have been seen in Maine inshore waters the last four years running. Just last September, there was a right whale photographed at the mouth of Portland Harbor. If only a small number of right whales do swim in Maine waters they deserve to be protected. When a species is this close to extinction, every single right whale is important to save.

As Russell Wray points out, the solution to the entanglement problem is not denying the problem exists, but rather adapting to fish with endlines that break when a whale hits them or without any endlines. Jill Goldthwait says ropeless technology is not well developed, but it is close. One organization tested ropeless systems with Maine fishermen this past summer with no technological failures. Goldthwait is correct in suggesting that government must subsidize the ropeless systems as well as the training involved in their implementation. This can be done easily within the 10-year time frame that NOAA Fisheries has planned. Then the Maine lobstermen will be heroes helping save the North Atlantic right whale from extinction while continuing to fish.

Right now, Maine lobstermen are being asked to use endlines that break at 1,700 pounds pull, a strength that data indicate most large whales can break. Massachusetts lobstermen have already adopted this life-saving measure by using “weak rope” or “weak sleeves” that are provided for free by the Massachusetts Department of Marine Resources. The sleeves work because they are easy to install in present endlines every 60 feet and they have had no significant failures. But for the whale to benefit from weak insertions, they should be installed every 40-60 feet, not just one or two in the top half of the endline like Maine fishermen are being asked to do.

The solutions to the entanglement problem of large whales, especially the endangered right whale, are close at hand. They should be implemented as soon as possible with financial help from the state and federal governments. We are obligated by law to do so. More important, we are morally obligated to save right whales and all marine mammals from the suffering that they are experiencing. The science is clear: right whales will go extinct if we do not either incorporate weak insertions in the endlines or remove endlines from the waters wherever right whales swim.

Bill McWeeny, director of The CALVIN Project, is a science educator who lives in Brooksville and has worked with right whale scientists at the New England Aquarium for 38 years.


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