The North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered large whale species, with under 400 whales, and fewer than 100 breeding females remaining in the world. Due to a large number of deaths in 2017, we declared an Unusual Mortality Event (UME). Since 2017, about 10 percent of the population has either died or been seriously injured. In real terms, that means the total confirmed deaths for the UME are 32 dead whales—21 in Canada and 11 in the United States—plus 13 seriously injured whales. We know that the leading causes of death and serious injury for this UME are entanglements in fishing gear and vessel strikes.
Protecting and recovering this species has been a priority for the agency for many years. Since 1997, we have worked with stakeholders on the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team to reduce the impacts of commercial fishing gear on right whales. We continually refine our management measures to support recovery of this endangered species, with the most recent modifications in 2015.
Today, we released our proposed modifications to the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan to further reduce the impacts of entanglement in fishing gear on right whales in U.S. waters. The proposed modifications focus on the Northeast Jonah crab and lobster trap/pot fisheries, which deploy about 93 percent of the buoy lines fished in areas where right whales occur. In 2021, the team will be asked to recommend risk reduction measures for other Atlantic trap/pot and gillnet fisheries. We also released the associated Draft Environmental Impact Statement.
We opened a public comment period on both of these documents. Comments are due on the proposed modifications and on the DEIS by March 1, 2021. We will also hold a series of virtual informational sessions in January to explain the proposed modifications and public hearings in February to accept public comments on the modifications.
The proposed modifications to the Plan would:
- Modify gear configurations to reduce the number of vertical lines by requiring more traps between buoy lines and by introducing weak insertions or weak rope into buoy lines.
- Modify existing seasonal restricted areas to be closed to buoy lines.
- Add up to two new seasonal buoy line closures.
- Modify gear marking to introduce state-specific marking colors and increase the number of and area of marked lines.
The proposed modifications would also allow fishermen to experiment with ropeless (buoyless) alternatives to accelerate research and development of ropeless fishing methods so that in the future, commercial fishing using ropeless technology can be used instead of seasonal closures to allow trap/pot fishing while protecting right whales.
These proposed modifications will affect about 2,500 lobster trap/pot vessels that will have to make changes to the way they fish. The material and labor costs caused by the proposed rule in the first year are estimated to be $7 million to $15.4 million spread out among the fishery that last year generated $485 million in fishing revenue in Maine alone. As always, we are looking for ways to support fishermen as they transition to these new requirements, as our goal is to have both a thriving trap/pot fishery and a healthy population of right whales.
Developing these proposed modifications was challenging for everyone involved. On behalf of the agency, I want to thank the 61-member Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, including the 18 fishermen and fishing industry representatives on the team, for their many hours of time spent developing the recommendations on which these proposed modifications are based.
We recognize that the risk of entanglement in fishing gear in U.S. waters is one of the many risks that these whales face. We will continue our work to reduce the risks posed by vessel strikes in U.S. waters, as well as to collaborate with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Transport Canada on all matters related to the transboundary reduction of vessel strike and entanglement mortalities and serious injuries of North Atlantic right whales.
We will provide updates on those activities as we have them.
Assistant Administrator for Fisheries