NOAA Fisheries published a proposed rule today that is intended to reduce entanglements in fishing gear in the U.S. American lobster and crab fisheries to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales. Entanglement in fishing gear is one of the two leading causes of North Atlantic right whale deaths. Oceana calls on NOAA Fisheries to strengthen the proposed protections in the final rule, including adopting more aggressive alternatives that will reduce risk to all North Atlantic right whales including adults, juveniles and calves across these fisheries to fully support their recovery.
The proposed rule largely adopts the recommendations of the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, an interdisciplinary group convened under the Marine Mammal Protection Act that includes fishermen, government representatives, academics and conservationists. In 2019, the Take Reduction Team adopted a near-consensus recommendation to decrease North Atlantic right whale entanglements by reducing the amount of vertical lines in the water by 30% to 50% (depending on the state), expand use of weak rope that is expected to break when it comes into contact with adult right whales, and improve fishing gear marking requirements. The proposed rule includes these measures as well as two new restricted areas that prohibit vertical fishing lines but allow the development and use of “ropeless” fishing gear, a promising technology that reduces the amount of fishing lines in the water.
Oceana campaign director Whitney Webber released this statement in response to the proposal:
“North Atlantic right whales are desperate for government protections that work. These critically endangered whales must navigate an obstacle course of ship traffic and vertical ropes from fishing gear along the Atlantic coast. Oceana welcomes the release of this long overdue proposed rule to update the measures to reduce the threat of fishing gear entanglement for North Atlantic right whales. While this proposal is a step in the right direction, NOAA Fisheries’ overreliance on weak rope that is designed to break with the strength of an adult whale, continues to put smaller juvenile right whales at risk. The government also lacks a plan to monitor the extent of all whale-entanglement interactions, including observer coverage and satellite monitoring.
With only about 360 of these critically endangered whales left, the government must take aggressive action to protect all North Atlantic right whales. Oceana recommends that the final rule includes: additional and expanded time and area closures to vertical line gear when North Atlantic right whales are present, additional reductions of vertical lines in the water, a transition to ropeless technologies, adequate fisheries monitoring such as satellite monitoring and observer coverage, and require fishing vessels to carry Automatic Identification Systems (AIS). Overall, the final rule should reduce risk of entanglement across the U.S. American lobster and crab fisheries to ensure North Atlantic right whales’ full recovery.
With North Atlantic right whale numbers declining, they can’t afford any more delays. Oceana calls on NOAA to finalize strong protections for these whales before it is too late.”
The federal government will be accepting public comments on the proposed rule here until March 1, 2021.
North Atlantic right whales were named for being the “right” whale to hunt because they were often found near shore, swim slowly and tend to float when killed. They were aggressively hunted, and their population dropped from peak estimates of up to 21,000 to perhaps fewer than 100 by the 1920s. After whaling of North Atlantic right whales was banned in 1935, their population increased to as many as 483 individuals in 2010. Unfortunately, that progress has been reversed.
Entanglement in fishing gear used to catch lobster, snow crab and bottom-dwelling fish like halibut, flounder and cod is one of two leading causes of North Atlantic right whale deaths. Fishing gear from the U.S. and Canada entangles an estimated 100 North Atlantic right whales each year, and about 83% of all North Atlantic right whales have been entangled at least once. Ropes have been seen wrapped around North Atlantic right whales’ mouths, fins, tails and bodies, which slows them down, making it difficult to swim, reproduce and feed, and can kill them. The lines cut into the whales’ flesh, leading to life-threatening infections, and are so strong that they can sever fins and tails and cut into bone.
Collisions with vessels is the other leading cause of North Atlantic right whale injury and death. North Atlantic right whales are slow, swimming around 6 miles per hour, usually near the water’s surface. They are also dark in color and lack a dorsal fin, making them very difficult to spot. Studies have found that the speed of a vessel is a major factor in collisions with North Atlantic right whales. At normal operating speeds, many vessels cannot maneuver to avoid them, and North Atlantic right whales swim too slowly to be able to move out of the way. This puts them at great risk of being struck, which can cause deadly injuries from blunt-force trauma or cuts from propellers.
To learn more about Oceana’s campaign to save North Atlantic right whales from extinction, please click here.