This interactive map plots right whale sightings from March 3, 2004, to March 3, 2019. Clicking on each whale graphic provides the date and location. Source: NOAA Northeast Fishery Science Center

Impending whale protections worry fishermen

With the majority of American lobsters caught in Maine, the state's lobster fishermen could bear the brunt of changes in federal fishery regulations to save the endangered right whale.

At the March 1 Fisherman's Forum update on the threat of extinction for the North Atlantic right whale, it became clear regulators believe changes to fishing gear will be announced sometime this year.

Much of the presentation focused on changes to the vertical lines that attach buoys floating on top of the water to the lobster traps down on the ocean floor. The colored buoys identify the owner of the traps and their location, and the line is used to haul the heavy traps out of the water

In 2009, a whale protection regulation required fishermen to eliminate the floating rope they used to connect strings of lobster traps, and replace it with rope that lies on the ocean floor. That process took five years and a rope buyback program to accomplish, according to Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, who was in the audience. Switching out vertical lines cannot be done in one year, she said.

Right whale presentation

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration official Mike Asaro explained that most of the remaining 450 North Atlantic right whales are male, with a population of about 100 females.The females are not birthing enough calves to keep the species going, he said. North Atlantic right whales are 70-ton marine mammals that can grow to 52 feet long and live up to 70 years.

Regulatory efforts to save the right whale are focusing on reducing whale deaths caused by collisions with boats and entanglement in fishing gear. Even a small number of deaths from collisons or entangements adds up to a significant percentage of the dwindling population, according to Asaro.

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