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Conservationists hope Maine rope recovery prompts broader discussion about right whale protections

The right whale identified as "5120" was discovered washed up dead on Martha's Vineyard on Sunday, January 28, 2024.
Eve Zuckoff
The right whale identified as "5120" was discovered washed up dead on Martha's Vineyard on Sunday, January 28, 2024.

Conservationists hope that the recovery of Maine lobster rope from a dead right whale earlier this week prompts a broader conversation about how best to the protect the critically endangered species.

But a five-year-pause on new federal regulations — written and placed in a 2022 federal budget by Maine's congressional delegation — will complicate those efforts.

The regulatory pause will make it difficult to force the Maine lobster fishery to adopt new federal regulations aimed at protecting right whales, said Erica Fuller, senior counsel for the Conservation Law Foundation.

She said this week's news is at odds with a long-standing industry claim that right whales aren't in Maine. And she believes the federal government should soon reconvene the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, a group of scientists, fishermen and others, to begin discussions about new measures to take effect after 2028.

"I don't think it's about attaching blame," she said. "It's about figuring out where the risk is, and trying to make the right decisions that protect the Maine fishery and critically endangered right whales, because I think most of us want to have both."

Many scientific and environmental groups said the news should also highlight the urgency for testing alternative fishing gear, especially as both American and Canadian lobster fisheries are more consistently marking their rope.

"We're learning, and what we're learning is that these entanglements happen everywhere, in in shore and offshore gear," said Amy Knowlton, a senior scientist with the New England Aquarium. "We just really need to keep moving the needle forward on that on-demand gear implementation plan."

Maine is expected to ramp up the testing of on-demand gear this year with a new library and dedicated funds to compensate fishermen for trying it out.

And earlier this week, conservation groups asked a federal judge to reopen a three-year-old court case and force the federal government to act on long-delayed ship speed limits.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration proposed new rules aimed at stopping large vessels from colliding with right whales in 2022. Conservation groups and the federal government agreed to stay the case, with the idea that vessel restrictions would be implemented in 2023. But new rules haven't been finalized. And since the start of this year, several calves have suffered injuries due to vessel strikes.

"I don't know where the proposed rule is hung up," Fuller said. "I feel the federal government has run out of excuses for where it is. We have to have better vessel speed restrictions."

NOAA Fisheries said Thursday it was notified of another dead right whale floating off the Georgia coast, though the cause of injury is unknown. Since the beginning of this year, three new calves are being monitored for observed or suspected injuries.