NOAA answers lobstermen's critique of whale rules science

STEPHAN SAVOIA/AP file photo/A North Atlantic right whale peers up from the water as another whale passes behind in Cape Cod Bay near Provincetown. Federal ocean regulator says they're considering the concerns of a lobster fishermen’s group about a plan to try to save the endangered species of whale.

NOAA Fisheries released a more detailed response Wednesday to criticisms of the science it used to develop new protections for North Atlantic right whales, refuting or clarifying several points while admitting data collection remains "an ongoing challenge."

The response was attached to a letter from NOAA assistant administrator Chris Oliver to Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association. In August, the lobster trade group withdrew its support for the right whale protection plan approved in April by the federal Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team.

In its Aug. 30 letter to NOAA Fisheries, the Maine Lobstermen's Association said it based its defection on its own analysis of the science NOAA utilized in developing the right whale protection plan that points to the lobster industry as a chief cause of whale entanglements.

The MLA said its review concluded that lobster lines and gear are among the least prevalent causes of serious whale injuries or death.

Instead, the group said its analysis showed ship strikes, gillnets and other fishing gear represent a greater danger to North Atlantic right whales than lobster buoy lines whose removal are at the center of the take reduction team's plan. The plan primarily focuses on extracting vertical lines from the region's waters to achieve a 60 percent reduction in serious injuries and deaths to the beleaguered right whales.

In Maine, the plan calls for a 50 percent reduction in vertical lines.

"I appreciate your careful review of the data and the specific suggestions you provided," Oliver wrote to McCarron. "Attached are responses and clarifications to some of the specific points raised in your letter. Be assured that we appreciate your input and will thoroughly analyze the information provided in your letter as appropriate in the draft environmental impact statement currently under development."

Among other responses, NOAA Fisheries said it was unable to replicate the results that led to the MLA's contention that gillnet and other netting gear present greater dangers to the whales than lobster fishing.

"While (NOAA Fisheries) was unable to recreate the results presented in the letter, it appears that the MLA's analysis removes all cases in which there was no definitive assignment to a fishery," the agency wrote, adding it "cannot ignore cases where the source of gear remains undetermined."

The agency, responding to the MLA's contention that two cases with substantial errors undermined the take reduction team's ability to assess blame for entanglements, said its scientists did not arrive at the same conclusion in re-examining a 2014 case in which NOAA Fisheries attributed blame for a dead right whale to "an unknown U.S. line" while the MLA identified U.S. gillnet gear as the likely cause.

"Our team of gear experts carefully re-evaluated this case a number of times at your request, but they cannot conclude that there is enough information to state that gillnet gear was involved in the entanglement," the agency wrote. 

In responding to the MLA critique that the take reduction team process was conducted with insufficient data to accurately assess risk, NOAA Fisheries acknowledged the difficulties in assigning blame for entanglements.

"Data limitation remains on ongoing challenge with regard to area and fishery assignment for entanglement events," NOAA Fisheries wrote. "Like you, we are frustrated by the data limitations. We will continue to consider whether unattributed serious injuries and mortalities (mostly those with no gear present or retrieved) can be assigned to a particular U.S. or Canadian fishery by using alternative analytical approaches to compare unknown cases to known incidents. If resulting analyses prove useful, we will include them within the (draft environmental impact statement)."

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

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