A North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod Bay off Plymouth, Mass., in March 2018. The Biden administration is investing $82 million in efforts to recover the endangered species, which now has fewer than 350 members. Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

Maine’s lobster industry welcomes the federal government’s $82 million investment in the recovery of the North Atlantic right whale because it believes improved research, technology and tracking will prove its fishing gear doesn’t pose a threat to the critically endangered species.

The whales, which have dwindled to fewer than 350 in number, are following their food into colder offshore waters as they swim between Cape Cod and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, said Virginia Olsen, the Maine Lobstering Union’s political director. They no longer congregate where Maine lobstermen fish.

“We believe these magnificent whales need protection where they congregate,” Olsen said. “This is an opportunity to utilize technology, advanced tracking and real-time data to pull together a comprehensive plan to save both Maine lobstermen and North Atlantic right whales.”

Wildlife advocates also applaud the investment, which is more than the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spent on any threatened or endangered species in 2020, but argue that stronger regulatory protections are what is most needed to bring the species back from the brink.

“Money only goes so far,” said Gib Brogan, campaign director at Oceana. “We cannot study this problem and potential solutions for years while North Atlantic right whales decline toward extinction. What North Atlantic right whales need are on-the-water protections now.”

SHIP STRIKES REMAIN BIG THREAT

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For example, one of the biggest threats to these whales is ship strikes, Brogan said. The federal government could reduce that threat by enacting and enforcing new federal speed limits along East Coast shipping lanes to protect vulnerable migrating mothers and calves, he said.

“Time is running out,” Brogan said. “They need actual protections, not money, now.”

On Monday the Biden administration announced it would give $82 million from the climate and infrastructure funding in the Inflation Reduction Act to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to fund right whale recovery efforts.

Total federal spending on North Atlantic right whale recovery efforts was unavailable Tuesday. But in 2020, the last time the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported endangered and threatened species spending to Congress, the whale had received $551.1 million in cumulative federal assistance.

It isn’t the first Inflation Reduction Act money used to help endangered species. The Biden administration spent $16 million to save Hawaiian forest birds like the honeycreeper from extinction. This once-abundant island genus has declined due to habitat loss, climate change and disease.

More than $35 million will go toward acoustic and satellite whale monitoring and the development of tracking models to map whale habitat, $20 million to reduce the risk of ship strikes, and $18 million to develop and test whale-safe ropeless fishing gear to reduce entanglements.

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About half of the $35.8 million earmarked for whale monitoring and modeling will be used to increase passive acoustic monitoring that can “hear” whales along the East Coast. About $9 million will be used to develop and run a high-resolution satellite tagging monitoring program.

This will be of special interest to Maine’s lobster industry, which has long claimed that regulators have no proof that right whales congregate in Maine waters anymore, much less any rope evidence that could tie the fishery to a rash of right whale deaths since 2017.

“We have been fighting for better science and analysis of the implications of climate change,” Olsen said. “Maine will not sit idle and give up our traditional lobster industry when we have no deaths attributed to the Maine lobstering fleet.”

Lobsterman load traps onto a lobster boat at Custom House Wharf in Portland in July 2022. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The state’s oldest lobstering trade group, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, also welcomed the expanded federal investment as a way to improve the government’s right whale data, something that both groups have long claimed is outdated and flawed.

“The right whale conservation plan cannot effectively balance the conservation of right whales with commercial fisheries and shipping interests without a better understanding of where and when these whales are most at risk,” said Patrice McCarron, the association’s policy director.

However, with fewer than 350 of the marine mammals left, scientists struggle to track individual whales. They can travel for miles without making a sound, especially pregnant mothers, which makes acoustic monitoring useless. They often swim alone, making them hard to spot from a plane.

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Tagging right whales is a difficult, time-consuming and expensive process, NOAA says. Researchers need good weather, calm seas and a special federal research permit to approach the whales. Some tags last only a few hours; the longest ones can stay on for a few months.

Scientists are experimenting with new tagging methods, including the use of drones to drop tags that attach by suction cup to the back of a whale when it comes to the surface to breathe. Non-invasive tags are preferred to those that break the skin and could cause infection.

MONEY ALONE IS NOT ENOUGH

Environmentalists warn that the $82 million, while high, is not enough of an investment to save the whale.

“The funding for right whales is very important, but what I would compare it to are the estimates needed for the full transition to ropeless fisheries,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director for Center for Biological Diversity, a group asking the court to mandate whale-safe lobster fishing.

The funding is still less than what is needed to “fully alleviate the threats” to the whale, Hartl warned.

Tens of millions have been spent on Columbia River salmon – $73.9 million for three species in 2020 – yet the fish continues to struggle because its primary threats remain, particularly the dams, said Noah Greenwald, the center’s endangered species director.

“This is likely and sadly analogous to North Atlantic right whales,” Greenwald said. “If threats from entanglement in lobster fishery gear and ship strikes are not addressed, no amount of money can really help save them.”

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