Stakeholder Summit Backs Added Protection for Right Whales
A team of researchers, conservationists and fishermen have agreed on a package of new measures to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales, whose population continues to teeter at the brink of extinction.
Although the measures could take more than a year to enact at the state and federal level, fishermen have promised to reduce right whale injuries and mortality by up to 60 per cent in lobster fishing zones through reductions in vertical fishing lines and modifications in fishing gear.
“We still have to hammer out the details,” said Kim Damon-Randall, NOAA’s deputy regional administrator, who attended a four-day symposium in Providence, R.I., last week where the new protection measures were agreed on. More than 60 people took part in the summit. “It was a large team, represented by people from the fishing industry and biologists, and they all have been around the table cross-caucusing, which was really beneficial to how the meeting played out,” Ms. Damon-Randall said.
The summit comes on the heels of a winter season that saw the birth of seven known right whale calves. Although the number represents the best calving season in the last three years, experts fear it is still not good enough to sustain a species that has almost as many scientists studying its survival as it does breeding females in the ocean.
Scientists estimate there are only about 100 potential mothers among the 400-odd North Atlantic right whales left.
“That’s not enough to sustain the population,” said Ms. Damon-Randall. “The fishing community understands that.”
Over the past two years, right whales, which used to roam the eastern seaboard in such plentiful abundance that whalers called them the “right” ones to catch, have experienced a dramatic decline in population. A combination of factors, including an increased fishing presence that has led to more than 80 per cent of whales experiencing some form of net entanglement, culminated in a 2017 breeding season that saw the birth of no new calves — and the known deaths of 17 adults.
The issue has caused tension between fixed gear fishermen who depend on the waters of the north Atlantic for their livelihood and scientists desperate to save a dying species.
The protection measures center around reducing the number of vertical ropes used to connect lobster pots to boats on the water’s surface, and modifying fishing gear to make entanglements easier to break for right whales. The whales are often injured or entangled by lines from pots that aren’t visible or are difficult to break.
At the recent summit the two sides were able to come together to agree on a 30 per cent reduction in vertical lines, as well as to promote the use of sleeves, or breakable fishing ropes, in Massachusetts waters.
“It’s been tense, and at times pretty contentious,” Ms. Damon-Randall said, describing the meetings. “But this is really good progress being made toward achieving what we need to do to save right whales. The fishing community came to the table. They agreed to talk, and they didn’t walk away.”
She continued: “We weren’t able to achieve full consensus, but we were very, very close. The way they would achieve the line reduction would be to reduce the number of trawls, or put more traps on the same trawl . . . the states are going to go back and decide what works in their particular areas to write rules that go through the federal register.”
Additionally, the team agreed to expand gear marking so scientists could more easily determine the source of gear seen on or retrieved from the endangered animals. Ms. Damon-Randall also said the team would to continue to monitor the modifications and push for the fishing industry to reduce the take in and around right whale habitat.
“The team worked really hard. It was a long four days,” Ms. Damon-Randall said “They made significant progress toward saving right whales.”
Meanwhile, NOAA has announced three voluntary vessel speed restriction zones south of Martha’s Vineyard within the last few weeks. Boaters are asked to keep their speed below 10 knots to protect aggregations of the whales seen in the area. Aerial survey teams have spotted as many as 158 right whales on the same flight this spring, often in aggregations of four or more. A spokesman for NOAA said the whales have been ubiquitous throughout Cape Cod Bay and Nantucket Shoals since the start of 2019.
“Pretty much consistently since January we’ve had voluntary slow speed zones in that area,” said Jennifer Goebel, who works in NOAA’s northeast regional office. “Usually there are a few whales, sometimes three, sometimes 10. And then in January, there were a lot.”
While most of the whales stay in the cooler waters of Massachusetts, Maine and Nova Scotia for the winter, a small number go south to give birth along the shores of Georgia and Florida. Ms. Goebel confirmed there were seven calves spotted this season, all born in the semi-tropical waters of the South. She said the calving season generally finishes around the end of April.
“So seven is definitely better than zero, which is what we had last year,” Ms. Goebel said. “But we are still not keeping up with mortalities, so we would like to see an improvement in the calving rate. It’s not where we need to be.”
Of those seven calves, Ms. Goebel said three have been spotted in Cape Cod Bay, coming north to feast on the plentiful zooplankton that swirl around in its waters.
“They come up to the north to feed,” Ms. Goebel said. “We’ve got a lot of their favorite copepods, so this is a well-known destination.”
Ms. Goebel said all the calves appeared to be in healthy condition, and that they would continue to be monitored through intensified aerial surveys this summer.
Ms. Damon-Randall added that the more research and sightings NOAA makes of the whales, the better scientists can advise legislators in how to protect the species.
“This isn’t the end,” she said.