STATEWIDE — New regulations proposed for Maine’s lobster fishery are the subject of major controversy. Some say they will help bolster the right whale’s recovery but lobstermen and state officials say they could destroy the lobster industry. In part two of our series “Tangled” we dive into the data surrounding whale deaths and entanglements.
NOAA called it an unusual mortality event. 17 right whales died in 2017, 3 in 2018, and 10 in 2019. The deadliest years were 2017 and 2019, and NOAA concedes the majority of those deaths were attributed to entanglement in Canadian snow crab gear and vessel strikes. Canadian snow crab gear was also blamed for a whale death in 2021. Ship strikes killed whales in 2020 and 2021.
Commissioner of Maine’s Department of Marine Resources Patrick Keliher said, “It gets back to the endangered species act. They look at every rope as having some level of risk.
Statistics like that are why Keliher and lobstermen argue that too much responsibility is being placed on Maine’s lobster fishery. They say the death of a right whale has never been directly attributed to Maine lobster gear and there has only been one entanglement associated with Maine gear since 2002.
“So they attribute risk to the me fishery because we’ve got upwards of 90 percent of the end lines within the region,” Keliher said.
NOAA declined our request for an interview but provided information. They say they’ve documented three live entangled right whales in 2002, 2003, and 2004 attributed to Maine gear. All three whales survived. NOAA also states that quote we have not positively identified any gear recovered from a dead right whale as Maine lobster gear.
“Our buoy markings, our license numbers are on the buoys, our ropes are marked with colors. Our traps, if a trap is attached to a whale, has our identification numbers on it. So if it’s entangled on something, you should be able to trace it back,” said John Drouin, and 3rd generation lobsterman.
NOAA does point out that their experts can only assign entanglements to specific fisheries when there is enough evidence to do so, which isn’t always the case. When there isn’t, the death is categorized as unknown. NOAA assigns the U-S and Canada 50 percent each of unknown entanglements.
“We think it is disproportionately allocated based on the data, based on the known entanglements. They need to step back from that and take another hard look at it,” said Keliher.
Both NOAA and conservationists point out that even when a whale survives an entanglement, it is can still be negatively impacted.
Kristen Monsell, the oceans legal director for The Center for Biological Diversity, said, “Scientists have determined that the stress and other impacts from an entanglement event can cause a whale to not be able to reproduce or reduce the chances that the whale will be able to successfully reproduce.”
And what about ship strikes? Right whales are also injured and killed via blunt force trauma from contact with a ship’s hull or they sustain lacerations from contact with the propeller. Rules governing ship speed have helped, but a report from NOAA shows compliance is a problem.
“There are rules around vessel strikes. Many of the rules are voluntary…everything that we are doing here in the us fisheries deals with compliance. If a fisherman makes a mistake there are consequences. The same should be held true for the shipping industry,” said Keliher.
“I think we need to be looking at both threats, both entanglement in commercial fishing gear and vessel strikes….Both are causes of mortality, serious injury and other types of harm to the species, Monsell said.
In tomorrow’s final segment, we look at the potentially severe impact to Maine businesses related to the lobster industry and what Maine officials say about being cut out of talks with Canada.