News Feature

Our Community
Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, June 3, 2021
NOAA says lobster fishery can stay open
But wants dramatic changes over next 10 years to save whales

by Leslie Landrigan

State and lobster industry officials gave mixed reviews to the biological opinion issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisherieson May 27. The opinion, known as a BiOp, said the lobster fishery doesn’t need to be closed to save the endangered right whale.

“We are pleased that the lobster fishery can continue to operate under the new Biological Opinion,” Patrice McCarron, Maine Lobstermen’s Association executive director, said in a statement.

But the BiOp also said the lobster fishery needs to reduce its risk to whales by 98 percent over 10 years. Entanglements in fishing gear have been responsible for the deaths of endangered right whales. NOAA’s 10-year plan would force lobster fishermen to turn to ropeless fishing, an expensive and unproven technology, Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher has said.

In the meantime, the BiOp will form the basis for a new whale rule expected late this summer. NOAA has already proposed that fishermen trawl up according to their distance from shore and incorporating weak points in buoy lines. The agency has also proposed closing offshore waters along the Area 1/3 line in Zones C, D and E from October to January.

Targeted

Maine lobstermen say they are being targeted for whale deaths caused by ship strikes and Canadian lobstermen.

McCarron said the MLA is disappointed that neither NOAA Fisheries nor the Biden administration has released a plan to deal with the disproportionate harm done to right whales by Canadian fishermen or vessel strikes in U.S. waters.

“Failure to demonstrate progress in these other areas is having a detrimental impact on Maine lobstermen,” McCarron said.

Gov. Janet Mills agreed, calling the plan to reduce risk over 10 years “troubling.”

NOAA Fisheries said in a statement it is committed to implementing “measures necessary for the recovery of right whales, while providing a phased approach and flexibility to the fishing industry.”

There are fewer than 400 Atlantic right whales, which have been listed as endangered since 1970, according to NOAA.

Flawed science

A federal judge ordered the biological opinion, or BiOp, by May 31. The final product included opinions on nine other fisheries and came to 582 pages.

On May 27, NOAA released a 10-page Conservation Framework that says Canada must take action to prevent whale deaths.

Mills said NOAA should be able to measure how Canada can reduce risk to whales. Otherwise, she said, unnecessary and unacceptable restrictions will be placed on U.S. lobster fishermen.

McCarron also criticized the flawed science used by NOAA to set “overly aggressive” risk-reduction targets for U.S. fishermen. NOAA has not acknowledged that U.S. lobster fishermen have reduced right whale entanglements by 90 percent since 2010, nor has the agency recognized that no right whales are known to have died or been seriously injured in Maine lobster gear.

Lobster fishermen have changed their gear to protect right whales. They removed 27,000 miles of floating groundline by 2009 and 2,540 of vertical lines by 2014, according to the MLA.

Read the Biological Opinion at greateratlantic.fisheries.noaa.gov/public/nema/PRD/Final%20Fisheries%20BiOp_05_28_21.pdf and the Conservation Framework at greateratlantic.fisheries.noaa.gov/public/nema/PRD/Final%20Fisheries%20BiOp_05_28_21.pdf.