A severely entangled North Atlantic right whale. The population must swim through a maze of fishing gear to get to feeding grounds after calving. Photograph: Nature Picture Library/Alamy

ME - US lobster put on ‘red list’ to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales

The 1m lines from pots used to catch the crustaceans are one of the two main threats to the whales, of which fewer than 340 remain

Lobster nets and pots have become such a threat to the survival of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales that the crustaceans have been “red-listed” as seafood to avoid by a major fish sustainability guide.

Fewer than 340 of these whales exist today, including only 80 breeding females. The population is estimated to have dwindled by 28% over the past decade.

Seafood Watch, a sustainability guide for consumers and businesses issued by Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, has downgraded Atlantic lobster caught by pot and gillnet fisheries in the whales’ range to “avoid”, its lowest rating.

The new assessment reflects the lack of “timely, effective management” to mitigate “significant risks” of entanglement and promote recovery of the species. The US lobster fishery is worth about $500m (£430m) a year.

Entanglement in the fishing gear used to catch lobster, crab and other species is one of the two leading threats to right whales (the other being ship strikes). The whales’ migration route – from their calving grounds in Florida to feed in Canada – is littered with more than 1m vertical lines from pots and traps, with 622,000 of these in US waters.

When a whale is entangled in fishing gear, the ropes can become embedded in its skin, weighing it down and leaving it unable to swim or feed properly. More than 80% of right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once.

In June, a court ruled that a US federal agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), violated both the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act by failing to quickly reduce impacts of lobster fishing gear on the North Atlantic right whale.

Other fisheries added to the “red list” include all fishing for Jonah crab, and other trap, pot and gillnet fisheries. Gillnets are a wall of netting that hangs vertically in the water, while traps and pots also have vertical lines from the surface.

Oceana, a conservation pressure group, urged the US and Canadian governments to implement stronger measures to protect North Atlantic right whales. “It’s unfortunate that the government’s failure to update the safeguards to protect North Atlantic right whales is having such serious consequences on these [lobster] fisheries,” said Gib Brogan, Oceana’s campaign director.

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