August 18, 2018
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Whale deaths spark lobster-gear lawsuit

Campobello Whale Rescue | BDN
Campobello Whale Rescue | BDN
This August 2016 photo shows a juvenile North Atlantic right whale that was tangled in fishing gear off Campobello Island in New Brunswick, Canada. Environmental groups have sued the federal government over protections that they say are inadequate for preventing whale from getting entangled in lobster gear.
By Bill Trotter, BDN Staff
Updated:

Just days after three environmental groups sued the federal government for not doing more to protect right whales from lobster gear, yet another right whale turned up dead.

The whale was found dead Monday off Virginia after it became entangled in “some kind of line,” The Associated Press reported.

Since early 2017, a total of 18 right whales have died off the East Coast or Atlantic Canada. Monday’s death was the first of 2018. Right whales are classified as an endangered species. Before the deaths of the past year, scientists had estimated their population at 450.

Most of the dead whales have been found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada, where the snow crab fishery is suspected to be at least partially to blame. Snow crabs, like lobsters, are caught on the ocean floor in traps roped to each other and to buoys on the water’s surface.

Ship strikes also have been cited as likely factor in some of the deaths. Researchers have said that climate change and the resulting northward movement of their food supply may be drawing more whales into the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

None of the recent right whale deaths has been directly linked to the American lobster fishery, but environmental groups say that the amount of rope used by lobstermen in the Gulf of Maine poses a significant threat to right whales.

“Right whales could disappear forever if they keep getting tangled up and killed in fishing gear,” Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity,” said in a statement about the lawsuit. “Federal officials have to act now, before it’s too late.”

Her group joined with Defenders of Wildlife and the Humane Society of the United States in suing the National Marine Fisheries Service on Jan. 18. They argue that the agency is violating the Endangered Species Act by not doing more to protect right whales from lobster gear.

Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said lobstermen take whale entanglements “incredibly seriously.” Twice in the past decade — in 2009 and in 2015 — Maine lobstermen have been forced to make expensive modifications to their gear to reduce the chances of entangling whales.

“The whale issue can’t be ignored,” McCarron said.

However, she said, “We, in no way, should bear the full burden of this problem. Canada has a huge responsibility for this and needs to do more.”

This week, though, Canada announced new restrictions on its snow crab fishery.

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