On behalf of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association members, I am responding to recent Associated Press coverage in the Press Herald about a perceived decline in the number of North Atlantic right whale calves being born in the Gulf of Maine.

The MLA has been engaged in whale conservation since 1997. Since then, we have significantly changed how we fish. Maine lobstermen now use modified gear to reduce the risk of whales becoming entangled, including the costly switch to sinking groundlines; incorporating weak links in buoy lines; marking traps, rope and buoys; and reducing the number of endlines fished in our offshore waters, where whales are most prevalent.

In the years since these changes began, the right whale population has rebounded significantly, from 295 in the 1990s to 526 whales in 2015, a 78 percent increase.

A recent study, published by Scott Kraus of the New England Aquarium, suggests a link between fishing gear entanglements and the recent reproductive decline in right whales. The Associated Press quotes Kraus, “And it looks like it (heavy fishing gear) affects their ability to reproduce … .” The study suggests this link; however, it provides no evidence to substantiate it.

Given the tremendous growth in the right whale population over the past 20 years, and corresponding changes in how lobstermen fish, it is unlikely that fishing gear is the cause for the slower rate of reproduction. A more likely explanation is the rise in ocean temperatures and environmental conditions in the Gulf of Maine. These temperature shifts have affected the abundance, availability and quality of the zooplankton species that right whales depend on and, correspondingly, their health and reproductive success.

If we don’t understand the global factors driving the significant changes observed in the whales’ behavior, our efforts to minimize human impacts such as ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements could be in vain.

Patrice McCarron

executive director, Maine Lobstermen’s Association