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Maine Lobstermen Question Science Around Right Whale Deaths

Dr.Pierre-Yves Dumont collects samples from a dead right whale in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in June 2017.
The Canadian Press/HO- Marine Animal Response Society
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The Canadian Press/HO- Marine Animal Response Society
Dr.Pierre-Yves Dumont collects samples from a dead right whale in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in June 2017.

North Atlantic right whale conservationists have ended up exactly where they didn’t want to be – in an escalating battle between lobstermen and scientists.

North Atlantic right whales are critically endangered. There are only about 400 remaining, and numbers are falling.

Scientists say entanglement in fishing gear is a leading cause of death.

In April this year, a broad group of stakeholders agreed to new commitments to reduce the amount of rope in coastal waters with the aim of cutting right whale deaths by at least sixty percent. The agreement was made by the Take Reduction Team.

But the Maine Lobstermen’s Association has since withdrawn its support. Public officials from Maine have added their voices, demanding science-based policies. Meanwhile, more than a dozen scientists have signed a letter asserting that the April agreement was indeed based on the best science available.

What made the Maine Lobstermen’s Association change their mind?

It turns out, their support for the agreement in April was tepid. It has only weakened since then.

“Although they agreed to it, they said, ‘We are doing this under the gun,’” explained Fred Bever, a reporter who’s been covering this issue for Maine Public Radio.

Some of the members of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association said at the time that they felt pressured to join the agreement. They also said they might change their minds if new information presented itself.

“Which made some of the conservationists not very happy, but was called a near consensus,” Bever told Living Lab Radio.

After that, Patrice McCarron at the Maine Lobstermen’s Association did her own analysis of the data.

“She says it's flawed,” Bever said. “She says that things were missed. Data was incomplete. For instance, there was one mortality of a whale that was attributed to lobster gear entanglement. But she says it's actually was gill nets and that can change the calculations.”

Maine elected officials got involved last week, calling for “science-based” policy. This week, more than a dozen scientists responded with a letter to Sen. Collins reiterating the strength of the science that underpins the proposed measures.

One of the signers is Scott Landry of the Center for Coastal Studies. He said the Center’s 2005 study looked at all of the gear they had removed from humpback and north Atlantic right whales.

“And 40 percent of that gear was lobster gear for right whales,” he said. “It’s definitely the single largest fishery we pulled off of right whales.”

He notes that right whales got entangled in “just about everything.”

“But to state that lobster is not a significant portion of that would not be correct.”

Some conservationists say it was political pressure, not new analysis, that caused the Maine* Lobstermen’s Association to withdraw its support. Specifically, the Maine Lobstermen’s Union is a separate group that did not sign on to the agreement in April.

"The time to have stood up and said 'No we can't support this' would have been in the Take Reduction Team, rather than waiting until after the Take Reduction Team when the Maine Lobstermen's union approached politicians and got political forces involved," said Sharon Young of the Humane Society of the U.S.

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association insists it is data, not politics, that prompted them to withdraw from the agreement.

A spokeswoman from the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association has said her group plans announce this week whether or not they will also withdraw from the agreement.

*A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that the Massachusetts Lobsterman's Association had withdrawn their support.

Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.