August 20, 2019
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Finding the right way to protect right whales

Michael Dwyer | AP
Michael Dwyer | AP
In this March 28, 2018 file photo, a North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth, Mass. On Thursday, June 27, 2019, Maine lobstermen are scheduled to have their final meeting with state officials about new protections for right whales.

Last week, Gov. Janet Mills’ administration made it clear that Maine does not support proposed federal regulations aimed at protecting endangered right whales. The issue is not whether right whales are worth protecting — they certainly are and are required to be under the Endangered Species Act — but instead how the federal proposal looks to reduce risk to the whales in part through a significant reduction in underwater lines used by Maine lobstermen.

All four members of Maine’s congressional delegation have also asked President Donald Trump to intervene on the proposed regulations, and together with Mills, have taken heat from environmental groups as a result. One wildlife advocate went as far as to say that Mills’ decision to have Maine pursue its own risk reduction plan amounts to playing “an active role in the right whale’s extinction.”

That’s strong stuff. But let’s be clear: justified concern about the impact of proposed rules on Maine’s lobster industry, and the incomplete data and largely unproven modeling underlying it, doesn’t make Maine officials unsympathetic or complicit to the undisputed plight of the right whale. It makes them appropriately skeptical representatives voicing concerns of their state, and one of its significant industries.

The worrisome decline of the Atlantic right whale has been well-documented in recent years. A once-growing population has dropped to an estimated 411 total whales. Data relative to whale mortality, however, is much less conclusive in terms of the role that Maine’s lobster fishery has played in that recent and troubling dip.

Significant gaps in the data remain even after decades of tracking these whales. The right whale consortium’s 2018 report card faulted inadequate regulations of both shipping and fishing gear for the rise in mortality. And while 85 percent of diagnosed deaths between 2010 and 2018 were related to entanglements in fishing gear — of both U.S. and Canadian origin — it is often unclear which fishery is responsible.

According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), there were nearly 50 total instances of right whale mortality or significant injury involving fishing gear from 2010 to 2018. Only two of those were identified as involving U.S. gear, and according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR), neither were attributed to the Maine lobster fishery. Roughly 40 of those instances — around 80 percent — involved unidentified gear. So could Maine gear be part of the problem? Yes, but that is a big unknown.

Efforts to improve gear marking and monitoring are underway to help clarify where whales are getting entangled, but those changes won’t provide results overnight.

Science, not politics, should guide this discussion. By nature of their positions, Maine officials are undoubtedly injecting an additional level of politics into the discussion. That has its dangers. But quite frankly, we, too, are not convinced by the existing data. The lingering questions here warrant Maine’s decision to consider its own plan to reduce risks to the whales without reducing half of the lobster fishery’s trap lines in the water, as proposed by federal regulators through a process that included Maine members.

Maine initially and tentatively agreed to that proposal’s goals, although Maine DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher reserved the right to change course, which the state is now appropriately doing.

Mills blasting the federal targets as “foolish” in a letter, however, was not particularly helpful rhetoric, even if it accurately portrayed the state’s level of frustration. Above all else, it’s critical that Maine remains engaged in the federal right whale protection process in the coming months, despite the now-stated objections.

“There’s a difference between withdrawing and disagreeing,” Keliher said. “I’m very hopeful that they understand that we want to maintain a seat at the table.”

That’s the right approach from the state and one that NOAA seems to share, despite expressing disappointment in Maine’s announcement last week and a sense that the state is walking back from something it already agreed to in principle.

“We understand Maine is still working to implement protective measures for right whales. They are also committed to preserving coastal communities that rely on lobster commercially and culturally. This is a difficult task but they have assured us that their efforts supporting right whale protection will continue and they will remain engaged on the Take Reduction Team,” read a statement from the agency. “NOAA Fisheries shares these same two goals. We continue to hope to achieve them with regionally crafted measures to reduce impacts of U.S. fisheries on right whales.”

A key in the coming months will be for Maine to remain engaged in the federal process while voicing objections as they arise. That seems the most likely route to a more workable plan that can help reduce right whale deaths without unfairly placing an undue burden on the Maine lobster industry.

 



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