NOAA says it will do more analysis in wake of criticism of proposed whale rules

Robert F. Bukaty/AP file photo/A lobster walks over the top of a lobster trap off the coast of Biddeford, Maine. The Maine Lobstermen's Association withdrew from an agreement on gear changes aimed at protecting endangered right whales, questioning the science NOAA used to formulate the plan.

NOAA Fisheries on Wednesday said it was disappointed the Maine Lobstermen's Association pulled its support from the federal plan to implement stronger protections for right whales, but did not specifically address the lobster association's criticisms of the science used to develop the plan.

The statement from Chris Oliver, assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries, said the agency continues to review the lobster association letter and conduct additional analysis on the issues it raised. It said the agency will continue to work with the Maine Lobstermen's Association "on any clarifying questions or concerns by other fisheries."

Oliver also stated that the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team strives to develop consensus recommendations, but "the agency will consider the extent of support for alternative proposals when consensus is not reached."

Oliver's statement arrived following 11 days of silence from NOAA Fisheries after the Maine Lobstermen's Association informed the agency on Aug. 30 that it was stepping away from the right whale take reduction plan.

The plan, approved by the take reduction team in April, primarily focuses on extracting vertical lines from the region's waters to achieve a 60 percent reduction in serious injuries and mortalities to the beleaguered right whales. In Maine, the plan called for a 50 percent reduction in the number of vertical lines.

Scientists believe there are about 400 North Atlantic right whales remaining, including fewer than 95 breeding females.

The Maine Lobstermen's Association based its defection on its own analysis of the science NOAA used in the development of the plan that points to the lobster industry as a chief cause of whale entanglements. The association said its review concluded that lobster lines and gear are among the least prevalent causes of whale injury or mortality.

Instead, the lobstermen's association said, its review showed ship strikes, gillnets and other types of fishing gear represent a much greater danger to the whales than lobster buoy lines.

"The Maine Lobstermen's Association presented some information to suggest that the risk reduction target of 60 percent was higher than necessary, and noted the risk of entanglement posed by other fisheries," Oliver said in the statement. " NOAA Fisheries is reviewing the letter, as well as conducting additional analysis, and looks forward to working with the MLA on any clarifying questions or concerns by other fisheries."

The very last line of the statement said NOAA Fisheries and the take reduction team will address the threats posed by gillnets and to humpback whales at future take reduction team meetings.

The decision by the Maine Lobstermen's Association  to withdraw its support for the current plan is only the latest element in widespread criticism of the take reduction plan out of Maine. Lobstermen, as well as state elected officials, have been highly vocal in their opposition to the plan and its portrayal of the industry as the chief threat to the imperiled right whales.

Oliver indicated NOAA Fisheries will continue to try to work with Maine officials, the state's lobster industry and other stakeholders in crafting a plan afford more protections for right whales. But it is moving ahead in the rule-making process.

"We are currently focusing efforts on the risks to right whales, and vertical lines associated with trap/pot fisheries are an important contributing factor," Oliver said. "We appreciate the active and productive participation of the Maine lobster industry and state government in our recent scoping meetings, and hope to achieve regionally crafted measures that will reduce the impacts on right whales, while allowing for a robust and healthy lobster fishery. In the coming months, we will proceed with rule-making as planned."

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

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