The Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) has voted not to support a Maine Department of Marine Resources whale plan intended to reduce risk to the endangered North Atlantic right whale species.
The vote not to support the plan came just before two Democratic senators from Massachusetts – Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren – sent a letter to NOAA Fisheries asking the organization to examine whether Canada’s Atlantic Fisheries marine mammal conservation standards are “doing enough to protect” the right whale. If not, the letter calls on NOAA to use its authority under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) to prohibit imports and fishery products from Canadian fisheries impacting the whales.
The right whale is one of the most endangered species on the planet, with only about 400 animals remaining in the water off of North America. A number of deaths related to entanglement in fishing gear has pushed the regulatory bodies of both Canada and the U.S. to find ways to prevent future conflicts between the seafood industry and the whales.
Maine’s regulatory bodies had already been signaling trepidation about NOAA's proposal to reduce vertical lines in the state’s lobster industry by 50 percent, and went so far as to give its own counter-proposal that the state’s Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher called the “line in the sand.”
However, the industry in the state found that even that plan was too far, and presented potential safety issues. In addition, an analysis that the association performed of fishing gear that had been removed from entangled whales found that lobster “is the least prevalent gear,” according to a release.
“The MLA commends DMR for its diligence in listening to the concerns of the industry and firmly believes that the state’s latest plan is a tremendous improvement over the options presented in June,” the MLA wrote. “The MLA will continue to provide constructive feedback to DMR and work with our members to draft a whale protection plan to address the varying risk to right whales across the Maine lobster fishery while minimizing the operational, safety and economic concerns identified by MLA’s members.”
A large percentage of the whale deaths have occurred in Canada, and according to the MLA’s examination of data from the National Marine Fisheries Service, both ship strikes and Canada’s snow crab fishery have a much larger role in whale deaths than the lobster industry.
The letter from the Massachusetts senators is calling for an examination of Canada’s efforts to save the right whale, given the sacrifices the lobster industry in Massachusetts has made. Lobstermen in the state have been following seasonal closures of the fishery, in addition to adopting a number of gear modifications designed to either reduce vertical lines in the water or help whales break free in the event of an entanglement.
However, they wrote, Canada’s industry seems to be doing less over time.
“Although Canada took regulatory action in 2017 to protect right whales, it appears that some of these measures have since been modified or removed,” the letter states. “This year, Canadian regulators removed or modified protections, including reducing the season-long snow crab closure area by 63 percent; removing a vessel speed restriction zone; and converting several closures or speed restriction areas to dynamic management that is triggered only after right whales are observed. Consequently, of the ten right whale mortalities documented in 2019, nine occurred in Canadian waters.”
The letter urges NOAA to “expedite the requested comparability analysis,” in order to determine whether Canada’s regulations are equivalent to the ones implemented in the U.S.
“If NOAA finds that Canada’s conservation standards are not equivalent to ours, then NOAA Fisheries, under the authority of the (MPAA), should consider taking action to prohibit imports of fishery and fishery products from the pertinent Canadian fisheries into the United States,” the letter states.
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