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April 10, 2018

Maine lands $700K federal grant to protect endangered whales

Courtesy / National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration
Courtesy / National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has awarded a $714,245 grant to Maine to improve data used to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales.

The Maine Department of Marine Resources has been awarded a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to improve data used to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales.

According to a DMR news release, the $714,245 grant is funded through the Section 6 Species Recovery Grants to States Program administered by NOAA. The three-year project, which begins this summer, will support work that improves and adds data on fishing gear that can inform future whale protection regulations.

With 17 North Atlantic right whale deaths last year, there is growing interest among stakeholders, including regulators and the Maine lobster industry, to improve the data on which future regulations are based.

"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.

Right whale habitat use has changed in recent years, said Summers. "Understanding how and where fishing gear is used throughout the Gulf of Maine region will be crucial to the development of regulations that address the relative risk of entanglement in specific areas," she said. "If new regulations are required, we want to have the information necessary to maximize the conservation benefit to right whales."

Fishermen to play a role

The project will include a program to solicit volunteer documentation by harvesters from Maine to Connecticut on how vertical lines are rigged and fished. Information will include rope type and diameter, trap configuration, distance from shore, depth and type of surface system.

"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 DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher. "Good information from industry will increase the likelihood of targeted, effective regulations."

The DMR will begin conducting industry outreach in the summer of 2018 to promote participation.

The project will also include a study on the breaking strength of vertical lines currently in use, as well as the amount of load put on the vertical lines during different hauling conditions. This analysis will document the strength of rope currently in use, determine what rope strength will ensure that harvesters can fish safely and efficiently, and help determine whether reducing the strength of vertical lines might help decrease severe entanglements of right whales.

The DMR will solicit participation from harvesters who are willing to test the hauling loads and breaking strengths of their fishing gear.

The Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, established 20 years ago to assess and advise federal regulators on whale protection measures, has recommended in recent years improved reporting by harvesters on gear location and configuration, as well as research into rope strength.

Project participants include the Maine Lobstermen's Association, FB Environmental Associates of Portland and Portsmouth, N.H., and the University of Maine School of Marine Science.

The association will work with FB Environmental Associates on project outreach and communications efforts, while the UMaine School of Marine Science will develop statistical models from the gathered data that regulators can use to quantify current vertical line use and to predict the potential outcomes of proposed regulations

Lawsuit seeks stricter regulations

Earlier this year, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and The Humane Society of the United States filed suit against NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service to force the agency to impose stricter regulations on lobstermen fishing in federal waters. The Ellsworth American reported the lawsuit came in the wake of the 2017 deaths of at least 17 endangered North Atlantic right whales in Canadian waters and off New England. Some deaths were attributed to the whales' entanglement with lobster fishing gear.

But some lobstermen fear that right whale extinction is being overstated, according to the Portland Press Herald.

Despite the lobster industry's size, and up to 3 million lobster traps in the water, no scientist or whale advocate has ever linked a whale death back to Maine's lobster fishery, Keliher told the Press Herald.

Twelve right whale deaths were reported in Canada last year, including several entangled in snow crab fishing gear. None of the five U.S. mortalities in 2017 could be traced back to fishing gear. One whale was struck by a ship, and the other four died of unknown causes.

At a session on right whale strategy, held last week by the DMR's Lobster Advisory Council, Summers said that projections of extinction are "back of the envelope calculation" that hasn't been published or reviewed by other scientists.

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