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New Lobster Regulations to Protect Right Whales Met With Opposition on All Sides

A 9-year-old female right whale (left) and a smaller right whale spotted off the coast of Jekyll Island.
Courtesy Sea to Shore Alliance/ NOAA Research Permit 20556
A 9-year-old female right whale (left) and a smaller right whale spotted off the coast of Jekyll Island.

The federal Fisheries Service says the lobster industry needs to significantly reduce the risks it poses to critically endangered right whales over the next decade. Conservationists say the agency’s demands in a new report don’t go far enough, while some lobster industry officials say the new restrictions threaten their livelihood.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) released a key report called a Biological Opinion yesterday that calls for a 98 percent reduction in risk to North Atlantic right whales over the next 10 years.

The goal is meant to be achieved over the course of four phases that correspond with increasingly tight restrictions on lobster and crab fisheries as well as other fixed-gear fisheries that use vertical buoy ropes. Vertical ropes attached to trap/pot gear is known to lethally entangle the whales.

"The fisheries, with the implementation of the Framework actions, are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of North Atlantic right whales," according to a NMFS spokesperson.

The Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association declined to comment on the report until the group meets in mid-June, but a representative for the Maine Lobstermen’s Association said the plan, described as a “conservation framework,” will devastate the lobster fishery, costing the industry tens of thousands of jobs.

“We’re very concerned that the smaller end of our fleet could fall out completely,” said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. “[We’re concerned] that the hurdle to entry into the fishery will change significantly; you can no longer get a skiff and a few traps and work your way in because the technology and the business model itself will change so much. We’re very worried there won’t be opportunities for our kids to enter the fishery as it transforms.”

She also noted fishermen have submitted to a litany of new requirements passed down from the state and federal level, including adding more traps per end line.

“But our boats are only so big and there’s only so much further we can go,” she said.

Right whale advocates are just as unhappy, albeit for different reasons.

One key issue to conservationists is that the Biological Opinion says that mortality and serious injuries to right whales will be reduced to 2.69 per year during the first phase if the proposed risk reduction measures work as predicted, though the effectiveness of several measures have been doubted by some conservationists and scientists.

“That’s far higher than .8, [which] is the level that will support recovery of the species,” said Gib Brogan, a fisheries analyst with the advocacy group Oceana. “So that’s almost three times what the science says we should be doing.”

A draft version of the phase one regulations was released in January, and the final rule will be released by early September. The draft calls for new regulations for lobstermen that have to do with adding "weak rope" or breakaway sections to whales can free themselves if tangled, requiring more traps per buoy lines to reduce the number of vertical ropes in the water, and restricting buoy lines in certain areas during seasonal whale migration.

But the next three phases include goals to reach 2.61 deaths and 1.04 deaths per year, respectively, with almost no details on how those risk-reduction targets will be met. Meanwhile, another section in the Biological Opinion called an Incidental Take Statement states zero North Atlantic right whale mortalities or serious injuries or mortalities are authorized.

"Although our analysis recognized takes [meaning serious injuries and mortalities] are likely to occur, we are not authorizing lethal take of large whales," the NMFS spokesperson continued in an email. "Meaning, any lethal take of right whales caused by fisheries in federal waters would require reinitiation of consultation."

That consultation would serve as a fresh look at the biological opinion.

Conservationists have criticized what they see as a major contradiction.

“It’s like telling the bank you don’t have the money to pay your mortgage and your get-out-of-debt plan is to play the lottery for 10 years hoping one of those tickets might win. In the meantime you lose your house,” Regina Asmutis-Silva, executive director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation, wrote in an email. “In this case, we lose a species.”

Brogan agreed, saying right whales can’t wait 10 years for meaningful change.

“With only 366 North Atlantic right whales remaining, we don't have a decade to have a phased-in approach. And this seems very much to be kicking the can down the road when we know what needs to be done now, and that we should be doing what's necessary before it's too late for the species.”

The Fisheries Service was required to produce the Biological Opinion after losing a key federal lawsuit to conservation groups including the Defenders of Wildlife and Conservation Law Foundation, who say the lobster fishery is posing outsized risks to the whales. For months, the Maine Lobstermen’s association has been raising money in a legal defense fund, and more lawsuits are likely.