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NOAA Fisheries Announces New Lobster and Jonah Crab Fisheries Regulations to Help Save Endangered North Atlantic Right Whales

August 31, 2021

New regulations address entanglements in fishing gear, one of the leading causes of right whale death and serious injury.

Allison Ferreira
Supervisory Foreign Affairs Specialist
‪(301) 427-8227‬

Today, NOAA Fisheries announced new regulations for the lobster and Jonah crab trap and pot fisheries operating in the Northeast United States to help save endangered North Atlantic right whales by reducing their risk of entanglement in fishing gear.

NOAA Fisheries and our partners are dedicated to conserving and rebuilding the North Atlantic right whale population, which is endangered and declining. The decline began in 2010, and accelerated most notably when 17 mortalities were documented in 2017, leading to the declaration of an ongoing Unusual Mortality Event. Since then, 34 right whales have died and 16 have been seriously injured, primarily due to entanglements and vessel strikes.

Illustration of how North Atlantic right whales get entangled in fishing gear. Entangled whales can tow fishing gear for tens to hundreds of miles over months or even years, before either being freed, shedding the gear on their own, or succumbing to their injuries. Credit: Graphic Services, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

North Atlantic right whales are one of the most imperiled species on the planet, with an estimated total population of fewer than 370 whales. Entanglement in commercial fishing gear is one of the major threats to North Atlantic right whales and a leading cause of an ongoing Unusual Mortality Event impacting the species. NOAA Fisheries and its partners estimate that over 85 percent of right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once in their lifetimes. Fishing gear can cut into a whale’s body, cause serious injuries, and result in infections and death.

“This rule represents years of work and collaboration on the part of fishermen, scientists, conservationists, and state and federal officials to develop strategies to reduce the dangers faced by North Atlantic right whales,” said Janet Coit, Assistant Administrator for NOAA Fisheries, and acting Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and Deputy NOAA Administrator. “NOAA thanks our state and community partners who worked together to address the varied threats facing this endangered marine mammal, and we look forward to continuing these important collaborative conservation efforts.”

NOAA Fisheries anticipates these new regulations will achieve an estimated 69% reduction in the risk of death and serious injuries caused by entanglement in these fisheries, by:

  • Reducing the number of buoy lines (lines that link the fisherman’s floating surface buoy to the pot or trap) in the water;
  • Weakening the remaining lines so that whales can break free before becoming seriously injured; and
  • Improving how fishing gear is marked so NOAA Fisheries and partners can better identify the type of fishing gear associated with entanglements when they do occur, thereby informing future risk reduction measures.

One of the methods for reducing the number of buoy lines when and where right whales are present is to extend the boundaries of one seasonal buoy line closure area, and implement two new areas where vessel operators are prohibited from fishing for lobster or Jonah crab with traps or pots using buoy lines to mark the ends of trawls and retrieve gear. However, they would be able to fish in these areas using ropeless trap or pot gear. Two existing seasonal restricted areas are also modified to allow fishing without buoy lines.

New and existing restricted areas in New England
New (green) and Existing (blue) Restricted Areas. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

The federal rule announced today will add to protective measures already in place from Maine to Florida, and is the first in a series of phases to reduce the risk of entanglement to endangered right whales. NOAA Fisheries will work closely with state agencies and fishermen to implement these measures.

The new measures in this rule will allow the lobster and Jonah crab fisheries to continue to thrive, while significantly reducing the risk to endangered right whales of getting seriously injured or killed in commercial fishing gear,” said Michael Pentony, Regional Administrator, NOAA’s Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office. “We are grateful to the Take Reduction Team for developing the initial framework, and to the state partners, fishermen, and non-profits who provided thoughtful comments and input that shaped these new regulations.”

Under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and Endangered Species Act of 1973, NOAA is responsible for promoting the recovery of right whales. NOAA Fisheries continues work to recover North Atlantic right whales, including by reducing the risks posed by vessel strikes in U.S. waters and by collaborating with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Transport Canada on reducing cross-border deaths and serious injuries. The Species in the Spotlight 5-year Action Plan identifies NOAA Fisheries priorities, and associated partnership and funding opportunities, for halting population decline and recovering the species.

Last updated by Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office on October 17, 2022