In the early 2000s, the news appeared good for endangered North Atlantic right whales. Their population grew significantly, due to both rising numbers of births and fewer deaths from ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear.
That good news has come to an end. Twenty of the rare whales died in just two years — 2017 and 2018, according to the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium. For the first time in nearly four decades of monitoring, it appears no right whale calves were born last year.
The consortium estimates there are only 411 right whales off the Atlantic coast.
Given these dire numbers, U.S. fisheries regulators have proposed dramatic declines in the amount of fishing lines in waters where the whales are believed to congregate and pass through.
Last month, a team devoted to reducing right whale deaths told Maine officials that the state must reduce the risk it poses to right whales by 60 percent.
The team recommended that Maine’s lobster fishery cut the number of vertical lines in the water by half. Vertical lines run between traps and buoys on the surface of the water to mark their location. The recommendations will be turned into proposed federal rules, which will be subject to public comments. The process could take up to two years.
There are a few ways that this reduction can be achieved. One is by having fewer traps, and their associated lines, in the water. Another is to attach several traps to one vertical line.
The team also called for weaker rope to be used at the top of the line near the buoys. Weaker rope could be broken if hit by a whale.
Maine marine fisheries regulators and lobstermen will soon begin meeting to discuss how to achieve these goals.
“We know what we have to do,” Kristan Porter, president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, told the Bangor Daily News in an interview.
“We’ve been through this before … and the arguments that it’s not us don’t work,” the Cutler lobsterman said. “We have to do what we can to meet the law.”
This doesn’t mean that Maine lobstermen don’t have a lot of questions about the proposed reductions and the rationale behind them, as they should.
Despite decades of tracking right whales, there are still significant gaps in the data about where the whales are and how they die, something that federal regulators must work harder to resolve. Both collisions with ships and entanglements in fishing gear are deadly to the whales. The right whale consortium’s 2018 report card faulted inadequate regulations of both shipping and fishing gear for the rise in mortality. Between 2010 and 2016, the consortium reported, 85 percent of diagnosed deaths were related to entanglements in fishing gear, of both U.S. and Canadian origin.
Despite the frequency of whales becoming entangled in gear, it is often unclear which fishery is responsible for it. Better gear marking and monitoring is also part of the recommendations from the National Marine Fisheries Service team. Maine gear will be marked with its own unique color.
While the vertical rope reductions will be challenging, meeting that challenge can keep Maine’s lobster fishermen on the water. The dungeness crab fishery in California was shut down on April 15, three months early, because of entanglements involving whales and turtles. The closure was the result of an agreement among regulators, conservation groups and fishermen.
Maine lobstermen have made gear changes in the past to reduce risk to right whales. Declining whale numbers show that even more needs to be done. Better tracking of both whales and fishing gear will help direct these efforts to be more effective.