Scientific data trumps educated guesses

As reported in the Oct. 25 American, a “study” issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in advance of a major regulatory conference singled out stronger ropes used by Maine lobstermen as a prime suspect in whale entanglement.

The study saw the fatal entanglements in the stronger lines as an unintended consequence of regulations limiting the number of vertical lines in the water. That limitation was answered by lobstermen relying on longer strings of traps. “While this reduced the number of lines, it also meant that lines had to be stronger to accommodate the increased load of multiple traps,” the study’s authors wrote. Conclusion: a suggestion for more gear changes and closures in some areas to prevent or reduce whale deaths.

Spoiler alert: the study’s authors had no data to support this finding. They conceded it was just a hypothesis.

As noted recently in the Portland Press Herald, stronger rope is not the only possible culprit. The warming waters in the Gulf of Maine are causing the whales to redirect their migration patterns, making them more likely to collide with ships or become entangled with fishing gear in Canadian waters. Indeed, most of the entanglements appear to have involved Canadian gear.

Certainly, regulatory changes are needed to guard against whales being struck by ships or tangled in rope. But lobstermen already are sufficiently skeptical of regulatory overreach. A new rule unsupported by data is not destined to go over well.

According to Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Kelliher, preliminary findings of an actual study show that the rope now being used has a breaking point within whale protection guidelines. Kelliher said there has not been a whale entangled in a Maine fisherman’s line since the latest rules went into effect.

“If we use the wrong starting point, and that’s what this report is, the wrong starting point, what kind of regulations will we end up with?” Kelliher said.

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