Team battles over right whale protections

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The lobster industry is willing to consider switching to weaker rope to protect the endangered right whale from deadly entanglements, but whale defenders say that doesn’t go far enough to help a species that can’t bear even one more death.

A team of scientists, regulators, animal rights groups and fishermen met this week in Providence to review proposals to help a species that has dwindled to about 450 individuals come back from the brink of extinction. 

The team is advising the National Marine Fisheries Service on how to prevent whales from getting entangled in fishing gear as they migrate, feed and mate as they travel back and forth along the East Coast of the U.S. and Canada.

The team agreed on a lot of measures that could help understand why the whales are dying, such as putting distinctive marks on all fishing gear so regulators can know which fisheries pose the biggest threat, but not on how to actually stop entanglement deaths.

Led by Maine regulators and fishermen, the lobster industry agreed Friday to explore weaker vertical lines — the rope that links seabed traps to surface buoys — in areas where whales gather in number or eat, an act that puts them at greater risk of a fatal entanglement.

Rope strength limits would represent “a giant step forward,” lobster industry officials said.

“We pushed ourselves way beyond our comfort zones to present this idea with a bow on it,” said Patrice McCarron, director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. “Let’s get the low-hanging fruit and find gear that we could actually fish and get in the water.”

Researchers believe whales are unlikely to survive an entanglement if the rope has a breaking strength of more than 1,700 pounds. It is unclear how many fishermen use that kind of rope, or if they could modify existing rope through knotting or splicing instead of having to replace it.

Maine Department of Marine Resources is collecting data on the kind of rope used by the state’s $1.4 million lobster industry, and conducting breaking tests on its configurations, but the results of this federally funded work are not due out for a few more months.

But many environmental groups and whale researchers say that doesn’t go far enough to protect this species. 

Advocates, including those suing the federal government on behalf of the whale, argue federal regulators must start work to eliminate all vertical lines from the ocean, either by shuttering the fisheries or by forcing them to use gear that doesn’t use vertical lines at all. 

“The 1,700-pound rope is great, it will have a real benefit on severe impacts, but that can’t be the stopping point,” said Colleen Giannini, a fisheries biologist with the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection. “The end goal has to be rope-less.”

TRIALS OF NEW TECHNOLOGY

Scientists are only just starting to understand the risk of even non-deadly entanglements, she said. For example, young whales may die when entangled in much weaker rope. Serious but non-fatal entanglements may be the reason females aren’t calving, Giannini said.

But lobstermen don’t think the answer to the whale problem lies in rope-less fishing technology, which remains prohibitively expensive and as yet unproven in rough New England waters where multiple fisheries compete for the right to set their nets, traps or lines.

It needs to be simple, affordable technology that fishermen can deploy wearing herring-smeared gloves in freezing, choppy seas, said Dave Casoni, president of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association. The existing technology has a long, long way to go, he said.

The Sandwich lobsterman tested some rope-less prototypes, which are used on the West Coast and Australia and sell for between $1,000 and $2,000 each, for the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Cape Cod Bay over the summer. He was unimpressed.

Whale advocates say that is exactly why the National Marine Fisheries Service needs to start to work on a transition to rope-less fishing now, which will increase competition among gear manufacturers, drive down costs and likely improve results.

Rope-less technology represents the best way to eliminate the risk of entanglement death, as well as the impact of sublethal entanglements on the species ability to reproduce, while still maintaining a lobster fishery, advocates say.

PROTECTION MEASURES

The team’s immediate priorities include: Use fishing gear data being collected now to craft new rope regulations, come up with a comprehensive survey plan to determine whale routes and forage spots, and identify rope-less fishing gear testing locations. 

If there is no rope-less technology that will work, advocates say the government must close those areas where whales have been sighted to all fisheries that use rope. Cape Cod Bay is already closed during whale feeding season, and more closures are possible.

The New England Aquarium, whose scientists have studied right whales for decades, wants federal regulators to consider additional temporary closures in Cape Cod Bay and a one-month closure from Cape Ann north to Cape Elizabeth.

The team debated whether to allow rope-less technology in closed areas to drum up interest, but fishermen worried it wouldn’t tell them how the gear would fare in crowded waters while some whale advocates didn’t want to test new tech in known feeding areas.

The debate ranged from collegial, with people who represent competing interests hugging and having drinks, to highly charged. Environmentalists accused the team of “talking the species to death,” while lobstermen said the team was “putting a gun to our heads.” 

The industry, which in Maine has a $1.6 billion impact, feels unfairly targeted by scientists, whale advocates and even regulators. Canadian entanglements pose a bigger threat than Maine fishing gear, it argues. Ship strikes and climate change, which is forcing the whale to forage farther afield, are also to blame. 

Federal regulators at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will try to calculate the conservation benefits and industry impacts of the team’s highest priority proposals before the group meets again in March to vote on a final recommendation. 

That won’t be easy, said Mike Asaro, chief of NOAA’s marine mammal branch. It is difficult to track the whereabouts, habits and even deaths of a population that is so small. Entangled whales usually swim away. If they die, the gear is often gone, or unidentifiable.

In this 2018 file photo, researchers from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration captured this image of four North Atlantic right whales during a recent survey. (Peter Duley/NEFSC/NOAA)

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