New analysis raises doubt on the effectiveness of a right whale protection agreement established in April
On August 30, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) sent a letter to Chris Oliver, head of NOAA Fisheries, withdrawing support for the April 2019 Take Reduction Team (TRT) agreement due to serious flaws in the data presented to the TRT and in the agreement process. The TRT agreement calls for Maine lobstermen to reduce its risk to right whales by 60%.
“Following the TRT meeting, MLA undertook a careful review of data available from NMFS, due to unresolved concerns with the timeliness and accuracy of information provided to TRT members,” said Patrice McCarron, MLA executive director. “NMFS own data show that that the lobster fishery is the least significant cause of right whale serious injury or mortality, while ship strikes, gillnets and the Canadian snow crab fishery pose much greater risks.”
The MLA’s analysis revealed the Canadian snow crab fishery accounts for 31% of right whale serious injury and mortality, gillnet and netting gear represent 13%, unknown trap/pot gear represents 4% and U.S. trap/pot gear represents 4%. U.S. and Canadian vessel strikes account for the remaining 48%.
“The MLA cannot responsibly recommend its members undertake changes in fishing practices when whales may continue to become entangled in fishing gear, such as gillnets, which are not included in the current rulemaking,” McCarron continued.
The MLA review of the data also found that current whale protection measures have been effective. Changes to the right whale plan in 2009 and 2014 resulted in a strong downward trend in the incidence of entanglement cases involving U.S. lobster gear, from seven cases prior to 2010 to only one case – a non-serious injury in Massachusetts lobster gear – since then. The data show only one confirmed right whale entanglement in Maine lobster gear, in 2002, with no known serious injuries or mortalities attributable to that gear. NMFS’ data also show that ropes removed from right whales in recent years are not representative of ropes used in Maine’s lobster fishery.
Furthermore, the MLA’s analysis showed that the NMFS’ stated target – to reduce risk to right whales by 60% – is unsupported by the best available data. NMFS incorrectly allocated the full responsibility for U.S. risk reduction to the Northeast lobster fishery and under-represented the role of Canadian fisheries in its calculations due to NMFS’ failure to investigate trends in right whale entanglement in unknown gear.
As a result, the data presented to the TRT and fishing industry erroneously overstated the share of risk attributable to the Northeast lobster fishery and downplayed the role of other gears in right whale serious injury and mortality. “Making changes solely in the Northeast lobster fishery does not address the full scope of known human causes of right whale decline and will be insufficient to reverse the population’s downward trend,” McCarron said. “Maine stands ready to identify measures that address the risk posed by our fishery. In order to do this, NMFS must re-examine the 60% risk reduction target to allocate the U.S. risk to all fisheries involved and not focus only on lobster. The rules proposed are misaligned and too narrow in scope to effectively protect right whales.”
Below please find a copy of MLA’s letter to NOAA including supporting documentation and a list of recommended actions.