By Bill McWeeny
The Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) claims that NOAA’s rulemaking efforts to address entanglement threats are an overreach because right whales no longer come to the Gulf of Maine, and over many decades, only one right whale has been found in Maine lobster gear.
I feel it is important to correct MLA on several counts, as it is unfortunately presenting only a small part of this complex story. First, since 1980, right whale scientists have photographed right whales throughout their range and have documented at least 1,617 entanglements involving 87 percent of the population based on the presence of entanglement scars or attached fishing gear. The research suggests that right whales are being entangled in all types of United States and Canadian east coast fishing gear with often 60 or more entanglement events per year.
Also, while some right whales have shifted their distribution, they still occur in waters that Maine lobstermen fish in every month of the year with some sightings in Maine state waters. Acoustic data backs up past official and opportunistic sightings confirming that right whales are no strangers to Maine fishing grounds. A recent deployment of acoustic buoys recorded calls from right whales off Casco Bay, Monhegan Island, Milbridge, Great Duck Island, Lubec, the Schoodic ridges, all around Mount Desert Rock and many calls from Outer Falls.
MLA states on its website that only one right whale has ever been entangled in Maine gear, and that was in 2002. It is mistaken. It is true that there was a right whale entangled in Maine lobster gear in 2002 and it was disentangled and is probably alive today because of that. But the MLA fails to acknowledge two other cases.
The Consortium for Wildlife Bycatch Reduction website clearly shows that the right whale named Kingfisher was undoubtedly entangled in Maine lobster gear in 2004 and another right whale was entangled in what was described as New England lobster gear in 2012 that matched gear from near-shore Maine fishing grounds. The 2012 whale was found dead in three sets of lobster gear and Kingfisher is presumed dead after carrying the Maine gear for 11 years and disappearing in 2015 with the rope deeply embedded in his flipper.
These are three cases where two were traced back to Maine and the third was likely from Maine. It is a fact that NOAA Fisheries has only confirmed where 16 entanglements have occurred out of the 1,617 documented entanglement events. That means that about 15 percent of the cases of known origin have been traced back to Maine, which implicates over 200 possible entanglements from Maine.
Similar percentages have been traced back to all Northeast U.S. fisheries indicating every East Coast fishery is to blame for some of the 1,617 entanglements. The question is, “Where have the other 1,601 entanglements occurred?” The reality is that we will never be able to determine this since most entanglements result in only scars. But we do know that entanglements have occurred throughout the right whales’ range, including in waters where Maine fishermen and women fish.
It is not only right whales that get entangled in Maine fishing gear. Let’s not forget the fact that many other whale species have been caught and killed in Maine lobster lines, including humpbacks, minkes and finbacks according to NOAA fisheries. This is a humane and a moral problem that we must address and not sweep under the rug.
Maine has hundreds of thousands of end lines and over 3 million traps and many fishermen are leaving their gear offshore year-round now. Maine lobster fishing gear makes up 87 percent of the lobster fishing gear on the East Coast of the U.S.
Another concern is that ropes have gotten much stronger since the mid-1990s and researchers have observed an increase in severe entanglement injuries especially since 2010, which is likely a combination of increased offshore fishing effort and stronger ropes. Studies have shown that severe entanglements cause poor health, delayed birthing rates, stunted growth and can lead to untimely and painful death. Severe entanglements are a major factor preventing right whale recovery from being achieved.
Maine lobster gear represents more gear on the U.S. East Coast than any other fishery. We know entanglements are happening in all fisheries on the East Coast in the U.S. and Canada. No fishery should declare immunity just because there is minimal direct evidence showing culpability. Using the 1 percent of evidence based on the very limited number of entanglement cases that could be traced back to their origin is not scientifically acceptable, nor is it logically acceptable. No fishery has convincing evidence that it is not causing entanglements, especially the Maine lobster fishery. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
The Maine Lobstermen’s Association and other Maine lobster lobbies should accept the facts and start working on a solution to the chronic problem that, if not fixed, will be the downfall of the North Atlantic right whale. This should be a win-win situation where Maine lobstermen improve their brand, keep fishing and stop harming whales. The conscientious consumer more and more wants lobster that is caught with gear that is safe for whales. We can’t talk our way out of this one; we need to innovate our way out of this. We must get beyond entanglement denial. If Maine lobstermen worked with the developers of new fishing techniques they could create a new way of fishing lobster while preserving the 5,000 small businesses responsible for catching the lobsters. That would mean lobster fishing the way life should be for the fishermen and for the whales.
Bill McWeeny lives in Brooksville and has studied right whales for 37 years. He is a member of Mainers Guarding Right Whales, the Maine Coalition for Right Whales and the Society for Marine Mammology.