NOAA Panel Proposes Limits on Lobstering to Save Right Whale

North Atlantic right whale and calf (NOAA file image)

Published Apr 28, 2019 4:38 PM by The Maritime Executive

NOAA's Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, the advisory committee that makes recommendations on fisheries' impacts on the North Atlantic right whale, has endorsed a steep reduction in lobster trap lines to reduce whale entanglements and mortality rates. In some areas, the proposal calls for a 50 percent reduction in vertical lines, the ropes that are attached to traps so that lobstermen can recover their gear and their catch.

Right whales sometimes become entagled in vertical lines, leading to physical impairment and/or death. The endangered whale's numbers have been dwindling for years, and only about 410-450 are believed to remain in the wild. 

NOAA tasked the advisory committee with coming up with measures to reduce fishery-related whale mortalities and serious injuries by 60-80 percent. The team's 60 members, who are drawn from the fishing industry, government and environmental organizations, deliberated for three days before settling on a plan aimed at a 60 percent mortality reduction. The proposal calls for reducing vertical lines by 50 percent off Maine and 30 percent off Massachusetts, and would require the use of a lighter 1700-pound-test rope, which adult whales may be able to break more easily.

No right whale calves were spotted last year, raising concerns that the species' decline might be difficult to halt. However, seven births have been documented so far this year.

Ropeless gear

The meeting did not discuss "ropeless" lobstering gear, which does not need a permanent vertical line for recovery. The Natural Resources Defense Council argued that removing all rope from the water is the only way to ensure an end to right whale entanglements. 

In particular, NRDC is encouraging NOAA to close the lobster fishery area located furthest offshore Maine - where the heaviest line is used - until ropeless gear is commercially available. "Near-term action needs to be taken in all fishing areas and perhaps most rapidly in the offshore fishery where heavier gear poses the most serious risk of mortality and serious injury. Right whales cannot withstand another five years of exposure to entanglements in heavy offshore gear while a research program is undertaken in LMA3," said Francine Kershaw, a scientist with NRDC.