WASHINGTON— The National Marine Fisheries Service today released a proposed rule to reduce the number of North Atlantic right whales killed in lobster and other fishing gear off New England.
“While a step in the right direction, this proposal doesn’t do nearly enough to protect critically endangered right whales from deadly fishing gear,” said Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director with the Center for Biological Diversity. “For these beloved animals to survive, we need to get all vertical fishing lines out of important right whale habitat immediately. We must transition to on-demand ropeless fishing gear.”
This critically endangered population is down to about 360 right whales and has been declining since 2010, suffering an estimated average of 24 deaths and serious injuries per year. The new measures are needed to better protect the species from deadly entanglements.
In the time the agency has taken to issue the proposed rule, the right whale situation has become increasingly dire. The species has suffered a nearly 25% population loss in less than a decade. Entanglements are the leading cause of right whale deaths and serious injuries, which are skyrocketing. They also prevent the whales from reproducing, pushing calving rates to historic lows.
Today’s proposed rule would amend the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan. The agency’s preferred alternative would modify existing closures to allow “on-demand” or “ropeless” fishing gear that doesn’t use static vertical buoy lines; implement up to two additional seasonal closures to vertical buoy lines off Southern New England and in the Gulf of Maine; increase the minimum number of traps per trawl; require weak rope or weak insertions in all buoy lines to reduce the severity of entanglements; and require state-specific gear markings.
The agency is considering two other alternatives, including an option that would limit lines to 50% of the estimated buoy lines fished in 2017 and implement an additional seasonal closure off Massachusetts to static buoy lines.
In April 2020 the Center and allies won a lawsuit challenging the Fisheries Service’s management of the American lobster fishery for failing to protect endangered right whales from entanglements. Per a court order, the agency has until May 31, 2021 to finalize the new regulations to reduce entanglement risk.
In the meantime, there are no new mitigation measures in place. The Center and allies filed an emergency petition to ensure additional protections are implemented while the Service develops long-term regulations. The agency has not responded to the petition.
The Fisheries Service is accepting public comment on the proposed rule and its draft environmental impact statement for 60 days.
The proposed rule applies to trap/pot lobster and crab gear off New England. The agency recently announced plans for another rulemaking to reduce the risk of entanglement in gillnet gear.