Pew petitions for vertical-line fishing closures off New England "to protect right whales"

Published on
June 18, 2020

The Pew Charitable Trusts submitted a petition for rulemarking to U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on 18 June urging him to take immediate action “to protect North Atlantic right whales from entanglement in federal waters off of New England.”

In a letter to Ross, Pew proposed a series of fisheries closures it says are “designed to afford the greatest protections for right whales, while minimizing the impact on fishermen.” The organization identified four areas off of New England where fisheries employ high-risk gear – such as lobster and crab traps with thick vertical ropes – and suggested that Ross designate closures during times when right whales are likely to be present.

The letter specifically calls on Ross to designate a year-round gear closure south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, and three seasonal offshore closures in the Gulf of Maine, when the use of vertical lines by American lobster and Jonah crab fisheries will be prohibited.

“Targeted vertical line closures where whales congregate and interact with heavy, lethal fishing gear are the fastest and most effective management tool available to prevent the unlawful deaths and likely extinction of the North Atlantic right whale,” the letter stated. “The proposed areas have been scientifically identified as posing the greatest risk of entanglement to the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.”

NOAA Fisheries’ analysis of commercial fishing data is referenced by the letter, which was signed by Pew Charitable Trusts Project Director for Conserving Marine Life in the U.S. and Canada Peter Baker, Environmental Consulting Attorney Purcie Bennett-Nickerson, and Blue Planet Strategies Attorney Roger Fleming. That data shows where the riskiest gear is used, the letter writers said; they also cited recent science that indicates “where and when right whales and their preferred prey, Calanus finmarchicus, are present.” 

“This information informed the petition and the proposed closures within it, which focus on the priority areas where right whales can be best protected from entanglement in vertical lines,” according to the letter.  

Baker and Katharine Deuel of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ campaign to protect Atlantic Ocean marine life off the U.S. and Canada, said they believe the recommended closures won’t impact most lobster fishermen.

“The closures we recommend are the best action NOAA’s Fisheries Service could take right now to protect right whales,” they wrote in a post about the petition on Pew’s website. “Because the majority of lobster fishing is in state waters - up to three miles from shore - and these proposed closures are almost entirely offshore in federal waters, most lobster fishermen would not be affected by what we’re proposing.”

“This action is needed to reduce the amount of heavier fishing gear used in key areas offshore, which NOAA Fisheries agrees presents a more lethal threat to right whales than the smaller-scale gear used closer to shore,” Baker and Deuel added.

The timing specifics for the proposed vertical line closures were listed by Pew as follows:

  • Down East transit area: August to October
  • Offshore migration corridor: October to May
  • Western Gulf of Maine feeding area: May to July
  • Southern New England feeding area: Year-round

“The four areas would be closed only to lobster gear that uses vertical ropes, and only during the times of the year when right whales are most likely to be present. Fishermen could still use other types of gear, including emerging “ropeless” technology, in these areas,” Baker and Deuel said. “Specifically, we’ve petitioned for: a year-round closure south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, two smaller, seasonal closures in the western Gulf of Maine and off Mount Desert Island, and an offshore closure to protect right whales as they migrate between Canadian and U.S. waters. We’re asking the commerce secretary to implement these measures immediately to protect right whales until permanent rules are put in place." 

According to the Pew letter, “NOAA Fisheries has allowed the American lobster and Jonah crab fishery to become far out of compliance with applicable laws: the biological opinion for the American lobster and Jonah crab fishery is out of date, there is no incidental take statement, and no actions have been taken by NOAA Fisheries to increase protections for the North Atlantic right whale since 2014.”

“Yet when this issue was brought to President Donald Trump’s attention during a public event in Bangor, Maine, on [5 June], he stated that he wanted to protect these whales,” the letter said.

Pew said it believes its proposed regulations align with mandates and authorities of the Administrative Procedure Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA).

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association and the lobster industry in the state have fought against additional regulations on the lobster fishery related to right whale protection. Whale entanglement data collected by NMFS show that no right whale deaths or serious injuries have ever been documented in Maine lobster gear, MLA told National Fisherman in May. This is in stark contrast to the death of 10 right whales in Canada last year, MLA noted.

“Maine lobstermen have not broken any laws. For nearly a quarter of a century they have followed every law and fishery management regulation, including major changes to their gear and fishing practices to save right whales,” MLA Executive Director Patrice McCarron said following Judge James Boasberg’s ruling in early April that NMFS violated the Endangered Species Act in permitting the lobster fishery.

Boasberg’s opinion states that “Congress enacted the ESA in 1973 to halt and reverse the trend toward species extinction, whatever the cost.” In response to the ruling, MLA launched a campaign to raise USD 500,000 [EUR 462,466] “to save Maine’s lobster industry.” 

“This case could lead to closure of the world’s most sustainable fishery, and we cannot let that happen. Right whales are not dying in Maine lobster gear,” McCarron said. “Lobstermen have done everything they have been asked to protect right whales and remain committed to doing their part to save the species,” McCarron said.

Photo courtesy of NOAA

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