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The Fate of Right Whales, and Lobstermen, Subject to Fishermen's Forum Seminar

The plight of lobstermen was foremost in the minds of many at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum seminar on the status of North American right whales. Lobstermen are concerned about what form new regulations are likely to take and when they might be introduced. Department of Marine Resources (DMR) endangered species specialist Erin Summers explained that right whales are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). Protection measures designed to reduce the likelihood of injury or mortality are developed by the Large Whale Take Reduction Team (TRT). The TRT, which formed two working groups to look at the feasibility of ropeless fishing and weak rope, will meet in April to decide on protection proposals to send to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to be included in the formal TRT plan for right whales. Meanwhile, a court case brought by environmental groups against NMFS under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is pressuring NMFS to develop a new Biological Opinion on a variety of fisheries, including American lobster, and their interaction with right whales. The Biological Opinion, now being written by NMFS, could find that the lobster fishery places the right whale population in jeopardy. If so, NMFS is required to institute new regulations called Reasonable and Prudent Alternatives or close the fishery outright in order to protect the whales. DMR is considering filing a brief in the court case.


Mike Asaro from the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office (GARFO) gave an overview of the right whale population. Numbers of right whales have declined since 2010. Twenty whales are known to have died since 2017. And up to 85% of all right whales show signs of entanglement as shown by the presence of scars or fishing gear. The number of new calves has also declined: five calves were born in 2017, zero in 2018, and seven thus far in 2019. For the right whale population to be sustainable, Asaro said that 20 calves or more must be born each year. There are approximately 100 females left in the population. Once they calved every three years but scientists report that they are now calving about every ten years. The drop in births may be due to females expending more calories as they search for their food, the copepod, Calanus finmarchicus. It could also be due to the sublethal effects of entanglement, Asaro said. “We have been in similar circumstances with right whales before and things have improved,” he said. The ecosystem changes taking place in the Gulf of Maine, however, mean the whales are going to different places to find food, where they are threatened by Canadian fishing gear and ship traffic as well as U.S. fishing gear. The MMPA allows incidental take of right whales each year, but that figure is less than one whale per year. The actual number of deaths per year is around five, Asaro noted. “The figure is trending in the wrong direction,” he said.

The current TRT plan calls for seasonal closures and gear modifications to protect the whales. The TRT is considering new measures to reduce risk, including modifying seasonal closures, increasing the visibility of rope, and reducing the number of vertical lines in the water. To reduce the impact of an entanglement, the TRT is considering reducing the breaking strength of rope (to less than 1700 pounds) and reducing the surface system rope configuration. To get data about ways to reduce risk in the future, it is considering additional gear marking requirements, monitoring and reporting systems (VTR, VMS, AIS), and aerial and acoustic research. Asaro also noted that the Biological Opinion being prepared by NMFS will not call for new regulations; if the Opinion finds that the lobster fishery poses a threat to right whales, it will indicate what measures are needed to protect whales. New regulations will come from the ASMFC, TRT and other levels of government. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) is moving forward with an update to its lobster management plan, known as Amendment 28. Toni Kerns, a staff person at the ASMFC, said that if the Biological Opinion finds that the lobster fishery causes jeopardy to the right whales, then the federal government will make decisions concerning lobster management changes. The ASMFC wants to maintain the viability of the lobster fishery so it is considering changes that could be made prior to the Biological Opinion being finalized. “The ASMFC wants the states to cooperatively participate in lobster management. Those most familiar with lobster management should provide input on any future regulations,” Kerns said. The Commission’s Lobster Board recommended that vertical lines be reduced by between zero and 40% in all lobster management areas except LCMA 6. It also recommended that the 10% replacement tag provision be removed and that a method of reporting on vertical lines be developed and implemented prior to having 100% harvester reporting in place. The Commission’s Plan Development Team is now drafting Amendment 28 to reflect these recommendations. Kerns anticipated a public comment period from May to July if the ASMFC accepts the recommendations at its May meeting. Final action would occur before August. DMR’s three-year vertical line project seeks to provide data on the functional breaking strength of lines used by lobstermen, on the strength such lines must have to haul traps safely, and on the different ways lobstermen rig their vertical lines in various parts of the coast. Using a rope breaking machine loaned by NMFS, DMR project staff, led by Erin Summers, have conducted tested 48 vertical lines thus far, breaking 23 clean lengths of rope, 16 with knots and 8 with splices. The ropes have all been fished by lobstermen between three and six seasons. The rope diameters vary from 5/16-inch to ½-inch. Summers explained that the tests show that knotted line breaks first, then spliced, then clean line. Most 3/8-inch line with a knot breaks at 1800 pounds, with a splice at 2000 pounds of pressure; while clean 3/8-inch line breaks at 2500 pounds. Load cell testers have been installed on six vessels to figure out how many pounds of pressure hauling exerts on vertical lines. The boats hauled five- to 35-trap trawls in federal waters at varying depths. The load cells showed that most of the pressure comes when the first trap comes up. The data also indicates that more pressure is exerted because of depth than because of the number of traps on a trawl. Summers also reviewed the results of a telephone and online survey made of lobstermen in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island concerning gear configurations. The largest number of responses to the survey came from Maine lobstermen (647). Lobstermen in Maine waters typically fish singles, pairs and triples (24%, 28%, and 15% respectively). The majority of Maine lobstermen use 3/8-inch rope, although some go up to ½-inch line. Project researchers want to get additional information about how surface systems are fished, the weight of various trawls and other information. In addition, the project is still looking for used rope to test as well as lobstermen willing to have load cells installed on their vessels this summer.

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