PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A new federal report on right whales that was intended to set the stage for a weeklong meeting of groups trying to save the endangered species lacked documentation for one of its central claims, leaving the fishing industry feeling unfairly targeted.

Lobstermen accused the Northeast Fisheries Science Center of incompetence this week after it claimed a 2015 rule requiring fishermen to reduce the number of surface-to-seabed ropes had prompted some fishermen to start using stronger rope, which poses a greater threat to whales.

“While this reduced the number of lines, it also meant that lines had to be stronger to accommodate the increased load of multiple traps,” the report reads. “This natural adaptation … contributed to an increase in the severity of entanglements.”

The lobster industry jumped on this sentence in the 24-page report, saying the center had no data to back it up, and knew it – the Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, gave Maine a $700,000 grant to collect this kind of data in April.

“You have an agency who’s been managing you for over 20 years fundamentally not understanding your fishery, publishing a technical memo that, quite frankly, felt more like an opinion piece,” Patrice McCarron, director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said Tuesday, the first day of the conference.

Such mistakes make it difficult for industry leaders to persuade constituents to participate in surveys like the one Maine is conducting if they believe federal regulators already believe the Maine lobster industry is to blame for the decline of the right whale population.


“It really erodes the base of trust that we need to move forward,” McCarron told the team.

The lead author, Sean Hayes, who is the chief of NOAA’s protected species branch, told the group that “we got this wrong” – before lobster officials cited the mistake at the meeting, but after last week’s scathing letter of reply from the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

“We were trying to go from a potential hypothesis of what went wrong,” Hayes said, referring to why the population continued to decline despite protective measures. “We sort of wrote it as conclusive, that with the efforts to trawl up that there was a direct connection.”

Hayes said he would probably amend the report to change the connection from a conclusive one to a hypothesized one, but Maine team members said that wasn’t good enough, and that a one-word amendment to the report would not undo the damage done.

Maine and Massachusetts lobstermen would like a public statement from the center about the mistake, and a reconsideration of the entire tone of the report, which they say doesn’t take into account the Canadian lobster and crab industry’s role in the 17 right whale deaths in 2017.

Afterward, Hayes noted that changing the report does not mean that his hypothesis isn’t true. He noted whale researcher Amy Knowlton, a senior scientist who specializes in right whale research at the New England Aquarium, believes there is a link, too.


Knowlton said fishermen have told her they are now using stronger rope to haul up the bigger trawls, but she doesn’t know how widespread such a practice may be. She said she is more worried about the impact of heavier trawls on entangled whales.

“It’s bad enough for a whale to swim around with one pot or two on a line, but now imagine that whale dragging around six, eight or even more pots,” Knowlton said. “And that doesn’t even take into consideration what it would do to a calf.”

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

[email protected]

Twitter: PLOvertonPPH

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