Eric Pray unpacks a lobster on a Portland wharf in this file photo from 2020. Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press, file

A group in charge of proposing fisheries regulations is meeting this week to consider drastic measures – such as halving the number of traps lobstermen can use – to rapidly reduce risk of injury and death to endangered North Atlantic right whales.

Getting tangled in fishing gear and colliding with ships are the most common human causes of death for the whales, which are estimated to number fewer than 340.

The National Marine Fisheries Service has developed a 10-year conservation plan to bring whale deaths down to levels that the population could withstand and still be sustainable. But a federal judge ruled in July that the plan wasn’t achieving its goals fast enough.

The plan’s first phase, which went into effect in May, required lobster fishermen to reconfigure their gear to use fewer vertical ropes in the water column and weaken the remaining ropes so they would break if strained by an entangled whale. The first phase also introduced a 950-square-mile seasonal closure area. These measures reduce risk of death and serious injury to whales by 46 percent, according to a National Marine Fisheries Service modeling tool.

But in a lawsuit against the Fisheries Service by the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups, U.S. District Court Judge James E. Boasberg determined those steps weren’t enough because the Marine Mammal Protection Act requires such conservation plans to bring the number of animals killed or injured to sustainable levels within six months of implementation. In order to achieve that, the Fisheries Service has determined that the risk posed by fishing gear and ship strikes must be reduced 90 percent, bringing right whale deaths from human causes to less than one per year – 0.7, to be exact.

While the environmental groups called for a new plan within six months, the Fisheries Service filed a brief on Monday asking the court to give it until Dec. 9, 2024, to develop a new plan designed to bring the right whale deaths to below 0.7 per year by May 31, 2025. The Fisheries Service argued it needs this time to fulfill public process and legal procedural requirements, and that achieving that goal will require broad-scale deployment of on-demand, “ropeless” fishing technology which is still being developed.


The Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, created by the National Marine Fisheries Service and consisting of researchers, fishermen, fisheries managers and environmental group representatives, is looking for ways to rapidly bring down the risk – beyond the initial reduction – by another 44 percent. Subgroups of the team suggested possible measures and Fisheries Service staff ran those through its modeling tool to determine how each would reduce risk. The results were presented at a team meeting Monday.


One of the most potentially effective measures is a 50-percent trap reduction in an area north of Cape Cod and including all Maine waters up to about 40 miles from shore. According to the modeling tool, this step would bring down risk by 20 percent. Reducing the number of lines in those waters by half would also reduce risk by 20 percent. Requiring that all lobstermen on the Atlantic Coast remove one end line from their strings of traps would bring down risk by 21 percent.

Other proposed measures provided moderate risk reduction. Requiring all trap, pot and gillnet fisheries along the East Coast to use rope that breaks at 1,700 pounds of pressure would reduce risk by 2 percent. Closing Massachusetts waters nearshore from January to May, a period of high whale activity there, would reduce risk by 4 percent.

But some suggestions would have little to no effect. For example, extending the duration of the new seasonal closure area in Maine’s federal fishing grounds by a month to include February would reduce risk by less than half a percentage point.

Fisheries staff noted that the risk reduction points for each measure cannot simply be added together in attempting to reach 44 percent. Measures proposed to be taken together would have to be run through the modeling tool as a package, because benefits of one measure might be canceled out by another.

Questions were raised about the modeling method and data used by the Fisheries Service.


Robert Glenn, a biologist with the Massachusetts Department of Marine Resources asked why the figure for average whale mortality is based on the years 2015-2019 rather than more current data.

“We are limited by our model,” Marisa Trago, a coordinator with NOAA fisheries responded. “We’re always a little bit behind in the data that we have … The most recent year we have is actually 2019 unfortunately, so we have to use that until we get updated data.”

Glenn urged the fisheries service to obtain recent data since conservation measures taken in Canada, Massachusetts and other states in recent years may show some decline in mortality and lower rates of entanglement.

“Given the gravity of the situation and the impact that this is likely to have, I think it really behooves us to include the 2020 and 2021 data,” he said. “I don’t think it’s acceptable just to say we don’t have the updated model run … I don’t think just saying we can’t update it and we have to use antiquated data really holds water or is fair.”

These models and calculations are also being challenged in court by the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, which is appealing a recent ruling by Boasberg in the Fisheries Service’s favor. A Fisheries Service representative at the Monday meeting acknowledged those challenges. 

“Developing measures to achieve the goal is going to require more impacts to fishermen coastwide,” said Colleen Coogan, a branch chief in the NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Region’s Protected Resources Division. “We can’t approach this lightly or without acknowledging how threatening this feels to fishermen who rightly perceived that individually, they may pose little risk … But as currently prosecuted, these fisheries have contributed to a decline in the right whale population level or reduction in their ability to be resilient to changes in their environment.

“Over 85 percent of the individual right whales have encountered a fishing rope somewhere along the range and there are more ropes fished for longer seasons in the U.S. portion of their range than in the Canadian portion,” she continued. “We cannot discount the likelihood that many of these encounters including serious injuries and mortalities occur in U.S. waters, and the law mandates that we respond to that.” 

The team is meeting again on Thursday and on Sept. 30 to further explore risk reduction measures, and plans to come up with recommendations at a meeting in November.

Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.