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Federal regulators, in response to a court order, are again proposing stringent new rules on lobster fishing in an effort to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales.
The decline in whale numbers in recent years is troubling. However, it is also problematic that more precise data on the causes of whale deaths remains lacking.
We, along with fishermen, conservationists, our governor and congressional delegation, want the right whale population to grow and thrive. But without evidence that lobster fishing gear is a significant threat to the whales, it is hard to accept potentially expensive, burdensome and dangerous changes in lobster fishing gear that may have little impact on the whales.
In the new draft biological opinion, the document that will be the basis for National Marine Fisheries Service regulations for the management of numerous ocean fisheries to limit harm to right whales, the agency clearly acknowledges the gaps in data.
Regarding collisions with ships, the agency says it is currently undergoing a separate review of measures, including mandated speed reductions and closed areas, to reduce what are called “vessel strikes.” Twice in the document it says: “This review is expected to be released soon.”
In addition, marking fishing gear with distinct colors to identify where gear found on entangled whales came from, is relatively new. Maine lobster gear is now marked with three purple lines, but not all gear in New England is marked yet so data has yet to be collected showing what types of gear are most frequently found on whales.
Despite this lack of data, the draft document calls for a dramatic reduction in the amount of gear — mostly ropes — that can be used in the lobster fishery in coming years. It would also close some waters to lobster fishing for part of the year.
The biological opinion also notes that without similar efforts in Canada to reduce whale mortality from fishing and ship strikes, the number of right whales will continue to precipitously decline for 50 years.
This isn’t to suggest that Maine and other Northeastern states can’t do more to protect right whales, especially when Maine lobster fishermen have more than a million traps and thousands of miles of rope in the ocean. But it does add urgency to the need to scientifically address complaints from Maine lobstermen that they are being asked to shoulder a disproportionate share of responsibility for the health of the whale population.
“The Maine lobster industry is being made responsible for a risk that is not ours,” 22-year-old lobsterman Brennan Strong wrote in a recent column for the BDN.
One problem is that there isn’t time to simply wait for better data. The number of right whales is declining, which runs counter to the Endangered Species Act and which is why federal courts have ordered federal regulators to do more to protect the whales.
In 2020, two young right whales were found dead, according to the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium. One had evidence of two ship strikes. The other appeared to die shortly after birth. Three whales that appeared to have been injured after being hit by vessels were spotted last year and four whales entangled in gear were spotted, two of which were in poor condition.
One relative bright spot from last year is that 10 calves were born, the most since 2016.
Any right whale death is a tragedy — and a possible violation of the federal Endangered Species Act. But protecting right whales from harm requires better assessing and monitoring all the risks they face and then implementing policies specifically targeted to those threats that post the most risk.
It is premature to put so many stringent new requirements on Maine’s lobster fishermen.