Fishing gear kills North Atlantic right whales. A multitude of federal bills and rules seek to protect them.


Current estimates indicate that less than 350 North Atlantic right whales exist and they are dying at a faster rate than they can reproduce, which makes these cetaceans “one of the most endangered lar in the worldge species of whalesaccording to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries.

Historically, North Atlantic right whales – which live primarily in Atlantic coastal waters on the continental shelf and are one of three species of right whales – have been hunted to near extinction in the 1890s. While whaling, which was banned in the 1930s, is no longer a threat to them, their populations have never fully recovered. Right whales continue to face death and injury from collisions with watercraft and becoming entangled in fishing gear. These threats have been amplified by warming ocean temperatures which have impacted the whales’ access to plankton and krill and forced them closer to the coasts of New England and Canada for the same reason that whales fishermen go there: to find food.

According to NOAA, North Atlantic right whale entanglements typically occur in stationary fishing gear, including lobster and crab pots and gillnets. In 1997, the agency created a Reduced catches of large Atlantic whales To plan, restricting commercial gillnets and trap/trap fishing gear to protect black, humpback and fin whales. The plan has been amended several times over the years, in terms of the types and amount of gear and fishing areas and seasons depending on whale populations. It limits the number of traps per trawl, requires gear marking, closes areas seasonally, and requires weak fishing lines that whales can detach from. But despite these measures, right whales continue to suffer from entanglements and collisions with ships.

“Fishing gear can cut a whale’s body, causing serious injury and leading to infection and death”, NOAA Fisheries says on his site. “Even if equipment is discarded or removed through disentanglement efforts, the time spent entangling can severely stress a whale, weakening it, preventing it from feeding and sapping the energy it needs to swim, feed and breed.” Currently, according to the agency, “entanglement in fishing gear is one of the greatest threats to North Atlantic right whales.”

Last fall, the agency released new regulations to protect whales from entanglements. The regulations, which went into effect in May, prohibit fishing in areas along the New England coast during times when whales congregate and migrate through those areas and require fishing gear that makes them less likely to trap whales.

The fishing industry, as expected, opposed the new regulations. Maine lobster fishermen immediately took issue with the seasonal closure of static lobster fishing lines in a 967 square mile stretch of federal waters off Maine from mid-October through January each year. The Maine Lobstermen’s Association has complained that its members will have to spend $45 million or more to comply with these regulations. But in July, the 1st US Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed the ban while the case is being heard, stating that he “found it unlikely that the plaintiffs would prevail on appeal” and that he “had no doubt…that the loss of a single right whale caught in a thicket of trap lines in the (area) would be irreversible.”

This decision comes only a few days after another decision in a special case filed by conservation groups alleging that the new NOAA rule violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act by failing to adequately reduce the risk of right whales dying in lobster lines to sufficiently low levels. In this case, too, a federal judge in Washington, DC sided with conservation groups. The judge “told the agency that it had to find a better way forward to allow the lobster industry and right whales to coexist without the former driving the latter into extinction,” says Jane Davenport , a lawyer for Defenders of Wildlife, one of the plaintiffs. “An opportunity for a forward-looking company is how to fish with 21st century technology rather than 19th century technology,” she added.

As these legal challenges unfold, lawmakers are calling for legislative action to save the whales.

Congress is currently considering the Right Whale Coexistence Act of 2022, identical bills introduced by House and Senate Democrats that would aid right whale conservation efforts “by supporting and providing financial resources for conservation programs and projects” designed to protect these marine mammals . If passed, the legislation would provide $15 million a year, “subject to availability,” to develop technology to reduce collisions and entanglements, including working with Canada (since ship strikes and fishing line entanglements also occur off the Canadian Atlantic coast). would also provide $300,000 per year to study the amount of plankton, an important food source for whales, available in the whale’s habitat.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation approved the Senate version of the bill, S 3664. The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife held a hearing on the House version, HR 6785, in March, but won’t move it for a vote at home until at least September.

“Without immediate and concerted conservation action to address these two leading causes of mortality (entanglements and boat strikes), this iconic species faces a high risk of extinction,” said Jessica Redfern, senior scientist at Anderson Cabot. New England Center for Ocean Life. Boston Aquarium, testified before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee in March. She said the legislation could help develop inventions such as ropeless fishing gear (which doesn’t use buoys), find ways to reduce the risk of collision with ships and deal with another threat: the impact of offshore wind infrastructure on whales. (The same technology could also help reduce entanglements from endangered humpback whales and leatherback turtles.)

Additionally, the House in July passed an amendment to the Fiscal Year 23 National Defense Authorization Act (HR 7900) which included a provision to establish a pilot project to study how to monitor and protect right whales. against collisions with ships. It provides the Maritime Administration and Coast Guard with $17 million a year for five years to develop a whale tracking system and develop protocols so boaters and fishermen know where they are and can avoid them. The legislation requires a report within six years on how to expand the program to protect all whales. It is unclear whether this provision will be included in the final defense bill that will pass.

Meanwhile, to ease the transition for the fishing industry, NOAA Fisheries says it will phase in these regulations to give anglers time to make any necessary changes to equipment and schedules.

“(W)e are working closely with our state and federal law enforcement partners to implement a graduated enforcement effort that will focus on compliance assistance rather than civil penalties until that we have determined that the localized supply chain issues have been sufficiently resolved,” the agency said in a statement. The agency is also working with fishermen and manufacturers to test ropeless crab and lobster fishing gear.

“We are also developing a ‘roadmap’ to guide broader use of cordless equipment and plan to share it for public comment in the coming months,” NOAA spokeswoman Katie Wagner said. Log by email. A 2020 NOAA survey found that some fishing vessels were not adhering to vessel speed limits, although compliance has improved. NOAA recognizes the need to further study “the impact of non-fatal ship strikes” and “strengthen our ability to enforce speed regulations,” Wagner said.

Lawmakers in the region are also working to support the industry. Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, tried unsuccessfully to add $100 million to the current appropriations bill to get fishermen reimbursed for expenses they incur. Additionally, the Maine and New Hampshire delegations introduced the Managing Atlantic Fisheries Ecosystems Supporting Economic Assistance and Sustainability (SAFE SEAS) Act of 2022 (S.3765, HR 7042), which would allow at least $10 million for the cost of the craft. There has been no action on this bill yet.

Marine conservation groups, however, say that while the new regulations and bills are a step in the right direction, this dwindling species needs a lot more help.

“We believe the government has taken a good first step with the current regulations, but there is still a long way to go. [to save the North Atlantic right whales]says Gib Brogan, fisheries campaign director for Oceana, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the oceans. “Regulations don’t protect all the space the whale needs… With a species in such a dire straits, we need to do much more than watchfully wait.”

These new regulations and technologies will likely help prevent the right whale from going extinct for the time being. But even if we manage to solve the problem of entanglements and collisions with ships through these measures, humanity will still have to deal with other long-term threats to the existence of the right whale, such as the decline food supply, climate change and ocean noise pollution.


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