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Lobster Industry Saddened by Right Whale Death

On February 14, 2024, Maine’s lobster industry received the sad and shocking news that juvenile female right whale (5120), which washed ashore on Martha’s Vineyard on January 28, died from a chronic entanglement. NOAA Fisheries determined the gear “is consistent with the rope used in Maine state water trap/pot buoy lines.”

Rope removed from #5120 included a purple tracer attached to the line. NOAA fisheries photo.

The necropsy, performed on February 1, determined chronic entanglement as the cause of death and found no evidence of ship strike. The gear analysis found that the gear most deeply embedded in the tail was 3/8” rope marked with a purple zip tie. The case is still under investigation by NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement.

Department of Marine Resources (DMR) Commissioner Keliher conveyed the “difficult news” through a letter to Maine’s lobster industry, writing that the incident “is very unfortunate – our goal is zero entanglements.”

A team of experts from DMR, including three Marine Patrol Officers, inspected the gear and agreed that it is consistent with Maine trap/pot gear. The DMR team disagreed that the gear originated from state waters, citing a lack of evidence on where it was set because too much of the gear had been lost. According to DMR, it is likely that only one endline was involved in this entanglement, ruling out the prospect of a secondary entanglement.

The whale was first sighted entangled in August 2022 with line wrapped around its tail and fluke blade, two buoys present at the tail, and approximately 200 feet of line trailing behind the whale at the surface. The trailing line was gone in a sighting off Massachusetts in January 2023. The whale was seen again in February in Canada and, when sighted in June 2023 in Massachusetts, the buoys were no longer present. Disentanglement teams made many attempts to disentangle the whale but were not successful due to poor weather conditions and evasive whale behavior. Attempts to attach a tracking buoy were also not successful.

“Maine lobstermen have made many changes to their fishing practices to avoid harming a right whale,” commented MLA’s Policy Director Patrice McCarron. “Based on the timeline, it appears this whale became entangled before Maine lobstermen transitioned to weaker endlines.”

The backlash from environmental groups has been fierce and anxiety is high in the lobster industry. “No Maine lobsterman wants our gear to harm a right whale or anything else in the ocean,” said MLA President Kristan Porter. “Maine lobstermen have never turned our backs on working with scientists, regulators, and environmental groups. We’ve set the standard for whale conservation practices around the world,” he said. “Now these radical environmental groups want to ignore the conservation measures we have in place and paint us as the bad guys.”

The federal whale plan is based on a computer model which assumes Maine’s lobster fishery is responsible for as many as five right whale deaths per year, a figure that the Maine industry disputes, explained McCarron.

Jane Davenport, an attorney with Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement, “The Maine lobster industry’s lobbyists and lawyers have been deceiving the public for years, claiming that Maine gear has never been tied to a right whale’s death.” NMFS data show that this is the first known right whale death resulting from an entanglement in Maine lobster gear.

The MLA cannot ignore the clear photographic evidence of the purple wire ties, indicating Maine gear marking, in the rope removed from the whale, explained Porter. “The MLA will conduct its own thorough, independent review of all evidence in this case and will bring a team of lobstermen to analyze the gear,” he said. The MLA believes that lobstermen’s knowledge of the gear can shed some light on how this whale became entangled to make sure it does not happen again. DMR’s investigation of the death is also ongoing.

“While the loss of any right whale is a tragedy, there is still reason for optimism,” said McCarron. The most recent right whale population estimate shows that the population’s sharp decline has leveled off due to an increase in right whale survival. The good news is that entanglement deaths are down significantly.

NMFS data show only two right whale deaths in 2020 from a vessel strike and an unviable newborn, two deaths in 2021 from a vessel strike and an entanglement in Canadian snow crab gear, zero deaths in 2022, and two deaths in 2023 from a vessel strike and an unviable newborn.

According to NMFS, 19 right whale calves were born in 2024 so far and right whale births have exceeded deaths since 2020.

Many ask what comes next for Maine’s lobster fishery. Commissioner Keliher reminded lobstermen in his letter that this “doesn’t change the fact that Congress has stated in law that this fishery is in compliance with the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act until December 31, 2028.”

“The MLA will demand accountability if we find any discrepancies with the current findings,” emphasized Porter.

On February 16, NMFS announced the death of another juvenile female right whale off the coast of Georgia. The preliminary necropsy determined the injuries to be consistent with a vessel strike based on evidence of blunt force trauma including fractures of the skull.


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