Northeast
Anderson Cabot Center for OCEAN l North Atlantic Right Whale [Photo courtesy of Cabot Anderson Center for Ocean Life / New England Aquarium and Canadian Shale Institute]

Call for unity to protect right whales between Northeast and Canada

BOSTON — Canadian premiers and U.S. governors in the Northeast need to take active steps to protect imperiled North Atlantic right whales from ship strikes and fishing gear entanglement, according to Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey.

“Their fate is our shared responsibility,” Healey wrote in her Sept. 4 letter to the New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers.

— Read more about the plight of the North Atlantic right whale

The six New England states and the five Eastern Canadian provinces meet at least annually to discuss regional issues related to energy, trade, the environment and infrastructure. The conference scheduled Sunday through Tuesday in New Brunswick was canceled due to Hurricane Dorian.

Right whales migrate along the East Coast from Florida to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, typically spending late winter and early spring months in and around Cape Cod Bay.

But Healey’s call for unity to protect right whales comes at a time when the state of Maine has now withdrawn support for an April pact among U.S. stakeholders in the Northeast to reduce the risk of lobster gear entanglement by 60%.

“No specific response,” said Jeff Nichols, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Marine Resources, about the Healey letter.

The state of Maine does intend to cooperate with other U.S. stakeholders who signed the April pact, Nichols said. But that will occur after state officials carefully review data and obtain more input from the state’s lobstermen, he said. The state intends to present a plan to the National Marine Fisheries Service in October, he said.

In the pact hammered out at an April meeting of the advisory Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, Massachusetts and New Hampshire representatives generally agreed to a 30% cut in the number of vertical buoy lines, as well as using ropes with a lower 1,700-pound breaking strength or outfitted with devices that separate or cut the line when under pressure. Maine proposed a 50% reduction in the number of vertical lines and the use of rope with lower breaking strength. Rhode Island is to employ a combination of 18% trap line reductions, weaker rope and trawling up to 30 traps, and the offshore fishery is working on a variation of those techniques.

The pact came after what has been a steady decline in the right whale population since 2010, along with 28 deaths in the last three years in U.S. and Canadian waters. The population is in the range of 400 animals, with about 95 breeding females remaining, according to right whale specialists in the region.

The possibility of the imposition of rules such as fishing rope restrictions and fishing area closures to protect right whales — potentially in ways the U.S. states and Canadian provinces may not want — is a risk with no cooperative, urgent action, Healey said. More lawsuits are likely as well, she said.

Currently, in a lawsuit filed April 4 in federal court, Richard Max Strahan of Durham, New Hampshire, alleges that the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs and the state Division of Marine Fisheries are violating the federal Endangered Species Act by requiring licensed fishermen to use vertical buoy ropes in their fishing gear that kills and entangles endangered whales and sea turtles. Healey’s office is representing the two state agencies. The lawsuit names three other defendants.

In a notice filed Aug. 13, Strahan said he intends to add Healey as another defendant in her official and personal capacity, according to court records. “She is currently conspiring with other government employees and commercial fishermen to violate the Section 9 prohibitions of the Endangered Species Act,” Strahan said in the notice. Section 9 are prohibited acts by humans against endangered fish or wildlife such as “takes,” which means actual or attempted harm.

On Friday, Strahan filed a similar lawsuit in federal court against the Maine Department of Marine Resources and the National Marine Fisheries Service. In the suit, he is seeking to stop the agencies, both right away and permanently, “from further requiring that its licensed fishermen must use Vertical Buoy Ropes on their fishing gear.”

Healey, in her letter to the governors and premiers, emphasizes familiar points that have been made in recent months by conservationists and scientists: the prevalence of rope entanglement scars on right whales, the changing geographic patterns of where zooplankton is found in densities that attract right whales and the whales’ resulting exploration of new areas such as the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where fewer protections from crab fishing rope and ship strikes are in place.

Healey also emphasizes the history in Massachusetts of seasonal lobster fishing bans, gear restrictions, ship speed restrictions and, more recently, collaboration between state regulators, the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association and conservation groups. She specifically pitches the use of ropeless lobster pot fishing gear with GPS-based location plotting software, which she said could support the “critically important lobster and crab fisheries.”

Using “whale-safe” gear could lead to more geographic areas opening up for commercial fishing, leading to economic growth, Healey said. “This market could extend past our state and region,” she said.

Healey is seeking both a resolution from the states and provinces to protect right whales, and action based on that resolution.

Jay Lucey, the secretariat for the group of states and provinces, did not return a request for comment Friday.

As of Friday, the National Marine Fisheries Service had not yet responded to the announcement Aug. 30 by the Maine Lobstermen’s Association that five of the state’s representatives on the take reduction team had withdrawn from the pact.

At that time, the fisheries service had begun writing a draft environmental impact statement based on the pact, after holding regional public hearings in August, including on Aug. 21 at the Upper Cape Cod Regional Technical School in Bourne, attended by 200 people. Finalizing the environmental impact statement would lead to a federal decision on new restrictions on lobster gear in U.S. Northeast waters. Gillnet gear and mid-Atlantic are to be considered next.

— Follow Mary Ann Bragg on Twitter: @maryannbraggCCT.

See The Providence Journal article . . .