A federal government group is about to begin several days of meetings to try to protect the rare North Atlantic right whale, and its work could result in new rules for harvesters of some of the country’s most popular seafood.
The right whales are among the rarest marine mammals, numbering about 411. Their populations were decimated during the whaling era generations ago, and today they face threats including entanglement in commercial fishing equipment, ship strikes and climate change.
The Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, created by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to reduce injuries and deaths that whales suffer due to entanglement, is holding its meeting in Providence from Tuesday to Friday. The week’s goal is to develop recommendations to reduce right whale mortalities that are caused by fisheries by more than 60 percent, according to the group’s agenda.
Some 60 fishermen, scientists, conservationists and government officials will take part in the meeting, the administration said. Members of the U.S. lobster fishing industry are watching this week’s deliberation’s closely because any new rules could impact their fishery.
“Tackling entanglements is critical to the recovery of the North Atlantic right whale population, and we can’t do it without the assistance and cooperation of those who know best how the fishing industry interacts with large whales,” Mike Pentony, regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Region, said on the agency’s website.
The potential for new rules comes at a time of relative prosperity for the American lobster fishery. Lobstermen in Maine, the most important lobster fishing state, had a haul worth more than $480 million at the docks in 2018. That was the third highest figure in history.
But the lobster industry is also facing challenges such as tariffs on Chinese exports and competition from Canada, which harvests the same species. The Maine Lobstermen’s Association said in a statement that it will “do everything in its power to keep Maine lobstermen fishing and prevent unfair and unrealistic rule changes.”
The right whales have suffered alarmingly poor reproduction and high mortality in recent years, but some very recent trends have been positive. While the population has dipped from about 480 in 2010, at least seven right whale calves have been spotted this year, following a disastrous 2018 in which none were found.