Maine awarded NOAA grant to gather whale protection data on lobster gear

In the wake of 17 right whale deaths in 2017 – one of the worst years in terms of right whale mortalities in decades –the lobster and crab fishing industries are under pressure to work out solutions that will make their gear safer. 

Twelve of the 17 right whale deaths occurred in Canada, and several of those were attributed directly to snow crab fishing gear. Those entanglements have led to calls for changes to the gear fishermen use, particularly the strength of ropes or trap retrieval methods. 

In Maine, U.S.A., the Maine Department of Marine Resources (MDMR) received a USD 714,245 (EUR 549,674) grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to investigate various aspects of the gear used in the state’s lobster industry. Those investigations will gather data on how vertical lines are currently rigged and fished, the breaking strength of lines currently in use, and the amount of load put on the vertical lines during different hauling conditions.  

“Maine has been involved in the development and evolution of whale protection regulations over the past two decades, and this research will ensure that future regulations are based on current, relevant data,” said Erin Summers, project lead and Director of DMR’s Division of Biological Monitoring. “This study is another example of Maine taking a leadership role in the protection of whales.”

The MDMR established the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team 20 years ago to assess and advise regulators on proposed whale protection measures. In 1997, when the United States first adopted its right whale management plan, just 295 right whales were left. While the population has increased to 450, increased mortality and low calving rates in 2017 have raised fears that the species may be heading toward extinction once more. 

One outspoken advocate for right whales has been Mark Baumgartner, an associate scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. At that Maine Fishermen’s Forum in March, he said the increased mortality could put heavy pressure on the lobster industry as the whales face extinction.  

"I feel the industry is in jeopardy,” Baumgartner said at the forum. He called for increased innovation in gear in order to prevent fishing closures. "As the population continues to decline and pressure is put on the government to do something about it, then they're going to turn to closures, because that's all they'll have.”

Putting drastic, untested measures in place without understanding their impact on right whales or the fishermen raised concern from officials in Maine’s lobster industry, and spurred the need for the new study by the MDMR. 

“The idea is to make sure that regulators have good data so that they can make regulations that really provide the best conservation benefit, rather than regulations that are based on a data poor situation, which can result in situations that have little to no benefit,” said Jeff Nichols, director of communications for the DMDR. “It gave regulators data to show where lobster gear and whales co-occurred.”

A closure of the lobster industry in Maine would be devastating to the state’s economy. It took in USD 434 million (EUR 352 million) in 2017, and generated another USD 1 billion (EUR 800 million) in post-dock revenue. 

The new project by the MDMR will ask harvesters to volunteer and document how their lines are rigged and fished. Information like rope type and diameter, trap configuration, distance from shore, depth, and more will all be part of the study. 

“Without a better understanding of vertical lines, regulators are more likely to implement sweeping regulations which might not be any more effective at protecting whales,” said Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher. “Good information from industry will increase the likelihood of targeted, effective regulations.” 

Patricia McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said their organization wants to do whatever they can to ensure the safety of right whales. While no right whale deaths in 2017 are directly attributable to lobster gear, she said the industry still needs to take the initiative. 

“We’re trying to look proactively at what we could do to make it better for whales,” said McCarron. “That may not be on the shoulders of the lobster industry, but the legacy of that is something we do need to deal with, because there’s nothing confirmed in Maine gear, but there’s a lot of rope in there.”

Making a blanket change without understanding the impacts that change could have is something that McCarron said they all hope to avoid. Changing the strength of rope without understanding what impacts it could have on safety, or whether it would help whales, may end up causing issues. 

“If you’ve ever talked to a fisherman, rope is a big deal. Your entire investment depends on the rope, your ability to get that gear back,” she said. “You cannot have rope parting off in the hauler and snapping off into the boat, it’s very very dangerous.”

Workers in the industry are open to innovative ideas and solutions, but being forced to buy entirely new gear across the board would be logistically difficult, not to mention costly. 

The information will come this summer as the MDMR commences its study into the gear various harvesters in the industry use. 

“We need information, we can’t just do something and not have assurance that it is actually going to help whales,” said McCarron. “We all want to see the right whale survive, so I do get the sense that the industry realizes that the whales are not headed in a good direction.”  


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