To save the endangered right whale, advocates are proposing major changes that would upend the New England lobster fishery.

Proposals to close the fishery in the western Gulf of Maine south of Cape Elizabeth during April, cut the number of seabed-to-surface lines that can entangle whales, and become a ropeless fishery by 2020 are among the ideas to be discussed next week in Providence, Rhode Island, by the team of scientists, fishing groups and animal rights activists tasked with saving the right whale from extinction.

The Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team will spend the week reviewing seven whale protection proposals and a dire new technical report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that outlines the grim recovery challenges facing the right whale, whose population has been in decline for eight years. A new population estimate is due out later this year, but scientists believe fewer than 450 right whales remain.

The report underscores the threat to a species that has been on the brink of extinction before, such as when whalers hunted the whales down to double-digit numbers a century ago.

“At the current rate of decline, all recovery achieved in the population over the past three decades will be lost by 2029,” the NOAA report said.

Scientists attribute the decline to increased mortality caused by ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements, likely the result of whales following plankton into colder, unprotected waters, and falling birth rates, likely caused by the stress of increased entanglements and longer migrations to reach a decreasing amount of food. Environmental groups have sued to force regulators to act to reduce right whale deaths caused by humans.

The NOAA report focuses on the risk of the whales getting entangled in the surface-to-seabed lines that lobstermen use to locate and haul their traps.

Maine fishing groups say their gear is not the cause of the decline – it has only been found on a handful of entangled whales in recent decades, and on none of the 19 whales found dead in the past two years, sparking the lawsuits and the latest government review. Most of the 2017 and 2018 deaths likely happened in Canadian waters, they said. Canada has only recently adopted measures to protect right whales.

But the report hints at the willingness to take drastic steps to reduce the threat of entanglement – even if Maine gear has not proven deadly to whales.

OVER 1 MILLION VERTICAL LINES IN WATER

With more than a million vertical lines in East Coast waters, any single line has a 1 in 10,000 chance of entangling a whale in any one-year period, the report said. That means a fisherman and his or her descendants could go several generations without ever entangling a whale. But research shows right whales have a 26 percent annual entanglement rate. In a population of 400 animals, that translates into about 100 whale entanglements a year.

“Given this, it’s easy to believe that all these entanglements are happening somewhere else regardless of where one fishes,” the report said. “Being able to directly link an entanglement with specific gear deployed at a specific place in time is rare, but by mapping known locations of gear that led to the entanglement of a right whale, one can see there is no place within the fished area along the East Coast of North America for which entanglement risk is zero.”

In its proposal, the Maine Department of Marine Resources argues that whale entanglement needs more study, and data, before regulators can conclude what kind of gear really poses a threat.

Confident its gear is not to blame for entanglement deaths, Maine is proposing that its fishermen give their gear a mark unique to Maine so regulators can rule them out as the cause of entanglements. It is also considering a decrease in the amount of line at the surface by limiting the length of line allowed between flotation devices, and, like Massachusetts, capping the thickness of vertical lines to make sure whales can break free of a rope if entangled.

Researchers at the New England Aquarium say gear marking alone is not enough, and that they wouldn’t support any rescue plan based primarily on that strategy.

In their proposal, aquarium researchers call for cutting the number of vertical lines that could entangle whales by setting limits of 400 traps per fishermen, which is half the state maximum, or by cutting every individual fisherman’s trap count in half. They also call for a ban on all fishing rope in waters deeper than 300 feet over the next five years, and a transition to red or orange vertical lines that are more visible to whales over the next five years.

ONE-MONTH BAN MOST CONTENTIOUS

But it is the proposed one-month ban on fishing in the western Gulf of Maine, south of a line extending from Cape Cod Canal to Cape Elizabeth, that will have local lobstermen on high alert. The researchers say the proposed closure during April, and one in coastal waters south of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard from February to May, is based on sightings data collected over the past couple of years. About 250 whales have been spotted in the western Gulf of Maine area during that month.

In their proposal, The Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife and Center for Biological Diversity – which together sued the federal government for not doing more to protect whales from lobster gear – outline a fast-moving plan to transition to a ropeless fishery, requiring all new entrants to the federal fishery be rope-free by Jan. 1, and that all participants in any Atlantic trap or pot fishery, including Maine’s, use only ropeless gear by Jan. 1, 2020.

Maine lobstermen say ropeless fishing gear, which is just now being tested in the North Atlantic, would be too expensive for owner-operated lobster businesses to buy and too fragile for the North Atlantic. They also believe ropeless gear would lead to conflicts among fishermen because the traps on the bottom would not be visible to a surface-going vessel, making it likely that lobstermen would lay their expensive new ropeless gear on top of each other’s.

Penelope Overton can be contacted at 791-6463 or at:

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