Maine backs away from whale rules

AP file photo/The Maine Lobstermen's Association is withdraws its support of a proposal by the federal government to reduce by 60 percentvertical trap and fishing lines to better protect a North Atlantic right whales from entanglements. 

The Maine Lobstermen's Association, citing flawed data from NOAA Fisheries and other fishing threats to North Atlantic right whales, is withdrawing its support for the right whale protection plan that it says unfairly targets the Northeast lobster industry.

The move by the nation's largest lobster trade group is the most recent example of mounting pushback from Maine state officials and lobster stakeholders to the plan approved by the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team. It could force a review of the plan and the process that led to it. 

In its Aug. 30 letter to NOAA Fisheries Assistant Administrator Chris Oliver, the lobster trade group said its five members that served on the take reduction team — and who voted for the current plan — are reversing field because of concerns over the validity of the fishing regulator's data and the manner in which the process was conducted.

"The (NOAA Fisheries) data contained errors that significantly impact our understanding of human causes of serious injury and mortality to right whales," Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, wrote in the letter to Oliver.

Jennifer Goebel, NOAA Fisheries spokeswoman, said the agency expects to have a statement Thursday in reaction to the letter from the Maine Lobstermen's Association.

McCarron, reached Wednesday, said the Maine Lobstermen's Association's own analysis of the NOAA Fisheries data revealed that lobster gear is not the primary culprit in whale entanglements.

Instead, she said, the analysis showed that, after Canadian snow crab gear, gillnet and netting gear are the most prevalent gear in whale entanglements.

Lobster gear, she said, is the least prevalent gear in whale entanglements from known causes.

"We're hoping that the agency looks at its own data the way we looked at it," McCarron said. "We want to move forward in a way that the agency can consider all of the risks to right whales and not just for the lobster industry to carry the burden for everybody."

The right whale protection plan, approved in April by the take reduction team, calls for individual states to reduce the number of vertical lines in the water to achieve a 60 percent reduction in serious right whale injuries and mortalities.

In Maine, the plan's goal is to remove 50 percent of the vertical lines currently in the water. In Massachusetts — where Gloucester is the top port for lobster landings — and New Hampshire, lobstermen are tasked with removing 30 percent of the current vertical lines.

In the letter, McCarron said the new findings on the causes of entanglements undermines the approved measures of protections.

"This finding means the 60 percent conservation target stipulated by the agency and allocated solely to the Northeast lobster fishery is unsupported by the best available data, and any package of remedial measures designed to meet it cannot credibly generate the conservation benefits anticipated," the letter stated. "At a minimum, the U.S. risk reduction target must be shared amongst the fisheries contributing to entanglement."

Further, the letter urges NOAA Fisheries to publish its own analysis of its data on the sources of entanglements and conduct a new analysis on the 60 percent risk reduction target.

"The agency should then reconvene the TRT so it can appropriately advise the agency on effective management approaches to aid in the species recovery based on a comprehensive understanding of known entanglement threats," the letter stated.

The letter also criticized NOAA Fisheries's use of a "decision support tool" as the basis for the TRT recommendations, stating the computer model remains under development and has not been peer-reviewed.

"During the TRT meeting, it became clear that while the tool holds promise to assess right whale management approaches, it has many limitations," the letter stated. "The MLA believes the data and design of the decision support tool was developed for U.S. Navy applications and does not adequately characterize whale density in important fishing areas."

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or shorgan@gloucestertimes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT

Recommended for you