Aquarium scientists urge more aggressive measures to reduce entanglement risk for North Atlantic right whales

Scientists say proposed federal rule not strong enough to save species

Male right whale Cottontail (Catalog #3920) spotted off the Florida coast on February 18, 2021, emaciated with rope trailing along his right side. He was found dead on February 27 off Myrtle Beach, SC. CREDIT: FWC/Joey Antonelli, taken under NOAA permit #18786

BOSTON, MASS. (March 1, 2021) – Scientists at the New England Aquarium say a proposed federal rule intended to limit the fishing gear entanglement risk of North Atlantic right whales does not go far enough to save the critically endangered species and are strongly recommending more aggressive measures.

The rule proposed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) would amend the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan to reduce the risk of serious injury and death of right whales in the Northeast crab and lobster trap/pot fisheries by at least 60%. After careful review, consideration, and analysis, the New England Aquarium, which has been a member of the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team since it formed in 1996, submitted a comment this week in response to NOAA’s proposed rule and Draft Environmental Impact Statement. Aquarium scientists are urging NOAA to consider bolder steps to limit deaths of right whales, which number just over 350 individuals. Just this past weekend, male right whale Cottontail (Catalog #3920) was found dead off the coast of Myrtle Beach, SC. An aerial survey team had spotted him entangled and emaciated on February 18 off the Florida coast, with rope exiting the right side of his mouth and trailing along his side. A wound near the front of his head indicated the rope had cinched down deep into the skin of his upper jaw. Cottontail was first seen entangled in southern New England five months ago.

“While the proposed rule represents a start to implement critically needed measures to save right whales, it falls short if we are to prevent this species from going extinct,” said Dr. Peter Corkeron, senior scientist and chair of the Kraus Marine Mammal Conservation Program at the Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life. “We cannot afford to keep losing right whales, particularly females, to human-caused mortality, both entanglements in fishing gear and vessel strikes.”

Of particular concern is the plan’s 60% risk reduction in the U.S. lobster and crab fishery. Aquarium scientists say this number is not sufficient to sustain the species and does not reflect the current, best available science. Instead, the Aquarium recommends reducing the risk by at least 80%. Additionally, the scientists are encouraging NOAA to include effort reduction as a tool to reduce risk in the final published rule. They cite the effectiveness of limiting the number of traps and licenses over time to control the number of vertical lines in the water, therefore decreasing the likelihood of a whale becoming entangled in fishing gear.

The Aquarium supports implementing fishing closures in the areas proposed by NOAA and continuing closures in existing areas. Given changing whale migratory and feeding patterns, the Aquarium recommends that NOAA develop a process to quickly extend existing or implement additional closures should the whales shift toward unprotected areas.

Another key part of the plan is ropeless fishing gear. Though it is not yet commercially ready for use, this technology is the key to a future in which fishing and right whales can coexist. The Aquarium supports NOAA’s proposal to allow ropeless fishing gear in newly proposed closed areas. Outside of closed areas, the Aquarium supports implementing manufactured 1700-pound ropes or weak insertions every 40 feet throughout the full length of an endline—the line to which the surface buoy is attached—as a temporary way to reduce the likelihood of a lethal entanglement until the fishing industry can fully transition to ropeless gear. Weaker ropes would part more quickly as an entangled whale pulls against the heavy bottom gear, thereby reducing the likelihood of complex entanglements and health-related impacts of towing the gear.

“The weak rope option is based on the New England Aquarium’s research looking at ropes retrieved from entangled large whales,” said Aquarium Senior Scientist Amy Knowlton. “By lowering the rope strength to 1700 pounds, this gives all whales, even the young ones, a better chance of breaking free from the bottom gear. This is a tool that could be implemented quickly and broadly in most fisheries along the east coast as ropeless technology is further developed.”

Earlier this month, the Aquarium submitted a comment in response to NOAA’s “no jeopardy” finding in the draft Biological Opinion on 10 Fishery Management Plans. In the absence of a final take reduction rule, the Aquarium does not think it is appropriate to make a “no jeopardy” finding and strongly urges NOAA to reconsider, citing conflicting scientific evidence. Scientists note that the draft Biological Opinion is predicated on the idea that a 60% reduction in human-caused mortality, as proposed in the rule, will be sufficient to prevent right whales from jeopardy. Aquarium scientists argue while 60% risk reduction may have been satisfactory when the rulemaking process began in 2017, this number is no longer sufficient in 2021 as there are now substantially fewer (16%) right whales. The Aquarium recommends that the redrafted Biological Opinion and rule be based on reducing the risk of entanglement by at least 80%. It is also likely that while regulations are being finalized to protect right whales, the species will continue to decline, though the draft Biological Opinion does not account for this time delay.

“The ‘no jeopardy’ finding of the Biological Opinion is not scientifically supported,” said Corkeron. “The analyses in the Opinion fail to account appropriately for uncertainty in the data and models, require improbable timelines, and disregard some of the best available scientific evidence.”

For more than 40 years, the Aquarium’s Right Whale Research Team has witnessed firsthand the suffering of right whales from human activities. Scientists have worked collaboratively to create solutions that can help protect right whales while allowing the fishing industry to adapt to new ways of doing business. The Aquarium is committed to continuing this work.

The New England Aquarium’s full statement on NOAA’s proposed take reduction rule can be read here.

 

MEDIA CONTACT:

Pam Bechtold Snyder – psnyder@neaq.org, 617-686-5068