Scientists gather for the necropsy of the North Atlantic right whale found dead off Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts late last month. Courtesy of NOAA Fisheries

A federal regulatory agency has confirmed that the right whale found dead on Martha’s Vineyard in January had been tangled in Maine lobstering gear.

It is the first time Maine gear has been found on the carcass of a North Atlantic right whale, an endangered species.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries announced Wednesday afternoon that the female right whale calf found on Jan. 28 on the eastern shore of the island south of Cape Cod had been injured by gear with markings distinct to Maine lobstering operations. The specific lobsterman is unknown, however, because the recovered gear didn’t include the buoy with the ID tag.

This section of rope with a purple zip tie nub was found entangled on a North Atlantic right whale whose body was found off Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, at the end of January. Courtesy of NOAA Fisheries

The discovery has reignited the contentious debate about the lobster fishery’s impact on the endangered North Atlantic right whale, and whether stricter regulations are warranted.

And lobstermen, who say such regulations could wipe out the industry, are fearful that the news could further threaten their livelihoods.

“Everybody is concerned, everybody is distraught. We don’t want our gear to harm anything in the ocean. We spend more time out there than any of these people,” said John Drouin, a Cutler lobsterman and member of the state Lobster Advisory Council. “But I personally am very concerned that NOAA is going to use any bit of information that it can in order to turn everything to: ‘The Maine lobster industry is the Big Bad Wolf.’ ”


Officials have not confirmed that the gear caused the whale’s death, and scientists will continue to probe the matter in the coming weeks. But entanglements in fishing gear and vessel strikes are the primary causes of premature deaths in the species, according to NOAA.


The whale had been spotted tangled in rope several times, as early as August 2022.

Surveyors last recorded seeing the whale in June 2023, noting that the rope wounds near the base of its tail had worsened. A whale preservation group was unsuccessful in several attempts to disentangle the calf. NOAA did not say how long the calf had been entangled in Maine gear.

The link to Maine fishing gear was confirmed by the Maine Department of Marine Resources. Commissioner Patrick Keliher traveled to Massachusetts with department staff to inspect the gear and arrived at the same conclusion as federal regulators.

“Unfortunately, the gear is consistent with Maine trap/pot gear,” Keliher said. He said the department was unable to determine whether the gear came from state or federal fishing waters.


The Maine Lobstering Union is similarly trying to investigate the source of the gear.

“We are all very deeply saddened by the event,” said Virginia Olsen, the union’s political director. “As we are looking at the gear, we are trying figure out if it was from state waters or federal waters.”

Drouin, who also is a member of Maine’s Lobster Advisory Council, swiftly accepted NOAA’s findings that the calf was entangled in Maine’s gear at the time it died. But Drouin fears federal scientists will blame Maine lobstermen for the right whale’s death without considering different factors.

“The rope is from Maine, I don’t doubt that … I’m not trying to deflect,” Drouin said. “But there were no traps, no buoys, no anchors, no other gear. Does anything else have to do with (the whale’s death)?”


The finding could increase the tension between regulators and Maine lobstermen.


Federal regulators contend that traditional lobstering gear severely harms the right whale population. According to the agency’s January 2024 tracker, fishing-gear entanglements have caused 80% of the 122 incidents that killed or seriously injured right whales since 2017.

In an effort to curb entanglement-related deaths, officials gave lobstermen five years to find new fishing methods that adhere to a long list of standards. NOAA has mandated new gear-marking rules, a reduction in the number of vertical lines in the waterthe insertion of weak points in rope and a seasonal closure of a nearly 1,000-square-mile area in the Gulf of Maine.

But some lobstermen say these much-debated decisions meant to protect the endangered mammal come at their expense.

NOAA hasn’t proven that any of the 77 right whales killed or injured by entanglements from 2017 to 2023 could be linked to fishing gear from Maine. The last known entanglement in Maine gear was 20 years ago, but it did not kill the whale.

The lack of data has been the basis of arguments that NOAA and other federal regulators are unfairly targeting Maine lobstermen by adding restrictions many fear would gut their businesses and the lobster fishery at large. And it’s been the justification at the center of multiple lawsuits working to halt the regulations.

But scientists have emphasized that there hasn’t been enough gear marking to precisely nail down where a whale has been entangled. And conservation groups, alarmed at the news, are hoping it prompts change.


“For years, some representatives of the Maine lobster industry have speciously claimed that its gear has never been linked to a recent death of an endangered North Atlantic right whale,” said Sarah Street with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It is now clear right whales can and do get entangled in fishing gear in Maine waters.”

The death is all the more distressing because the right whale was a young female. Right whales can live up to 70 years, and breeding females can give birth every four years. But NOAA estimates there are fewer than 70 reproductively active females left, and they are giving birth far less than usual.


In a bid to support Maine’s lobster fishery – one of the oldest ongoing industries in North America – Maine’s congressional delegation has worked to delay regulations from taking effect until Dec. 31, 2028, through a provision in the 2023 federal spending bill.

All the rope that was examined after a North Atlantic right whale was found dead off Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts in late January. Courtesy of NOAA Fisheries

In a joint statement Wednesday evening, U.S. Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins, Rep. Chellie Pingree and Gov. Janet Mills expressed sorrow for the death but emphasized that Maine’s lobstering industry cannot take anymore hits.

“We cannot, however, ignore the fact that entanglements in Maine fishing gear are rare – this is the first right whale entanglement with known Maine gear since 2004 and the first ever right whale mortality with known Maine gear. We also cannot ignore the fact that Maine’s lobstermen and women continue to demonstrate a strong commitment to maintaining and protecting a sustainable fishery in the Gulf of Maine,” the elected officials said. “They have invested in countless precautionary measures to protect right whales, including removing more than 30,000 miles of line from the water and switching to weaker rope to prevent whales from being entangled. As of today, the full results are still pending and we await additional information from NOAA.”


Rep. Jared Golden, the remaining member of Maine’s delegation, expressed similar sentiments in a separate statement Wednesday.

Keliher, the Department of Marine Resources commissioner, said this discovery won’t impact the regulations in place until 2029.

“This news will undoubtedly also bring with it a fear and anxiousness around what could come next from NOAA,” Keliher said. “It is important to point out that while terrible news, it doesn’t change the fact that Congress has stated in law that this fishery is in compliance with the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act until Dec. 31, 2028.”

A NOAA spokesperson said the agency had no further comment on Wednesday afternoon.

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.