Endangered North Atlantic right whale faces challenges with survival

Chris Tobey holds fishing rope that has been painted purple
Lobsterman Chris Tobey shows fishing rope he had to paint purple to keep up with regulations. PHOTO: Haley Hersey
Chris Tobey holds fishing rope that has been painted purple
Lobsterman Chris Tobey shows fishing rope he had to paint purple to keep up with regulations. PHOTO: Haley Hersey

By Haley Hersey

An endangered species of whale has the potential to sink Maine’s lobster industry as it battles its own struggles with survival. 

The North Atlantic right whale population is decreasing and conservation efforts that subsequently impact fisheries are being enacted by state and federal agencies. Roughly 330 North Atlantic right whales are left in the ocean, according to David Morin, large whale entanglement coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

At issue is that right whales are said to get tangled in ropes from lobster traps in the ocean, which can lead to the animals’ death. One of the focuses for conservation has been decreasing entanglements by imposing new or increased fishing regulations.

About 140 right whales have been observed with rope on them, and some of that rope has been retrieved for analysis, said Bill McWeeny, chair of the Maine Coalition for North Atlantic Right Whales.

“Only about 30 of the cases have been traced back to a specific fishery,” McWeeny said. “So, we only know where 2% of the entanglements have happened. Three were traced back to Maine.”

There are lots of theories why whales get entangled in things, such as poor visibility underwater, lots of things in the ocean and whales being preoccupied with feeding and other tasks, Morin said.

“If a whale is entangled – especially a large whale – in a buoy line, that whale can be many miles away when the fisherman goes back,” said Colleen Coogan, marine mammal and sea turtle branch chief for NOAA.

The data NOAA has to use to determine that there are incidents is observing the entanglements, or a take, Coogan said. A take is “when an animal protected under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, Endangered Species Act, or Migratory Bird Treaty Act is unintentionally captured, live or dead, during fishing operations,” according to NOAA.

“Documenting takes with observers doesn’t work for fisheries that take large whales; the observer is not gonna see the interaction,” Coogan said. “The information that we have to use to determine that there are takes is observing the entanglements.”

NOAA has put a lot of effort into surveying the whales, she said. 

“We conduct aerial surveys, focused on areas where right whales aggregate so we can document as many individuals as possible each year,” Coogan said. “In some years a hundred new scars on right whales are observed that are rope entanglement scars. So we know that these whales are interacting with rope. And then in some cases, a few cases most years, we’re seeing the ropes still on the whales.”

“Based on entanglement scar studies with humpbacks roughly 10% to 20% acquire new entanglement trauma every year,” Morin said.

“The causes of observed deaths, when it can be determined – other than newborn and young calves –  all we see are they’re killed by entanglements and by vessel strikes,” Coogan said. “We can’t always tell cause of death. There are mortalities that occur that we investigate and they’re so decomposed, we can’t tell what killed it,” she said. “So we don’t know if it’s vessel strike, if it’s entanglement or if there’s some natural mortality source out there that we don’t know could fully decompose an animal.”

The smallest data set NOAA has is the retrieved gear, where they have the gear in their hands and can tell where/what fishery it came from, Coogan said.

When a whale becomes entangled, the simplified process of freeing it includes: finding it, getting the report and sending trained responders going out to the whale to remove the entanglement, Morin said. 

A changing food source
Some say lobster traps are not the real problem.

The declining number of right whales isn’t an entanglement issue, it’s a plankton problem, according to Robert Steneck, University of Maine professor of oceanography, marine biology and marine policy. 

The increasingly warming waters in the Gulf of Maine has caused a change in the distribution of plankton, especially a type of zooplankton right whales eat called Calanus finmarchicus, McWeeny said. 

Calanus finmarchicus is a foundational food source for everything from herring to right whales. Scientists have also been witnessing a correlation between the crustaceous plankton and larval lobster. The plankton, which is driving the success of a year’s offspring, is not a predator to the young lobster, but is more likely a food source for lobster as well as the right whale, said Richard Wahle, director of the University of Maine’s Lobster Institute. 

The warm current that has been pouring into the gulf is negatively impacting the ecosystem, Wahle said. The warming ocean is affecting the Calanus finmarchicus population in the Gulf of Maine, but the lobster and right whale are reacting differently to the change.

“When I started studying right whales they were abundant in the Bay of Fundy because the bay had blooms of the Calanus,” McWeeny said. “But Calanus like cold water, and the blooms have depleted. So the whales are looking around for other places to feed,” he said.

That warming has had an adverse effect in southern New England, Wahle said, and conditions have only gotten worse. “That same amount of warming coming to a colder place has actually made things more favorable for lobsters,” he said. 

The whales are malnourished, but Steneck said he has seen no evidence that the malnourishment is because of entanglement, he said.

Taking a new approach to lobstering
To address concerns that lobster traps are leading to the decline of right whales, an alternative type of lobster fishing gear – called ropeless or on demand gear – has been encouraged to be used because it doesn’t use fishing rope. 

On demand fishing, which uses ropeless gear, coils up the rope in a lobster trap with a kind of buoy that can be released with a sonar signal or electronic signal. The buoy, tied to the rope, will float to the surface when the lobsterman is ready to haul the trap, which keeps the water clear of ropes that right whales might become entangled in, McWeeny said. 

“There are many companies working on these devices, and some are very successful,” he said. For example, Canada crab fishermen are commercially fishing ropeless, and fishermen in Massachusetts are also using the devices in areas closed to fishing because of right whales being present, McWeeny said.

A buoy and fishing rope leans against a stack of lobster traps.
Enhanced restrictions have been imposed on Maine’s lobster industry to protect the endangered right whale. PHOTO: Haley Hersey

In addition to ropeless gear, lobstermen have been advised to trawl up, or fish up to 20 traps on one buoy and rope. Water closures, where fishermen can’t fish in an area of the ocean, have also been imposed. 

The industry was initially told they had to enact changes in a two-year time frame. But a six-year delay was implemented to allow more money to be put towards additional research, loss of gear and money, and new ways of acoustically tracking whales, Wahle said.

“Nobody’s being complacent about this,” he said. “Six years is going to go by fast.”

Although entanglement is a focus for NOAA, the agency is working on other recovery efforts for the North Atlantic right whale, Coogan said.

“Right now, we’ve got a vessel speed rule that’s been proposed that we’re trying to finalize,” she said. “We’re working with wind energy companies on best management practices to make sure that they’re not providing risk to right whales and to other marine mammals.” 

NOAA is also looking at aquaculture and any emerging threats, Coogan said. 

“So while entanglements get a lot of the press, particularly in the Northeast, we are looking at other recovery actions as well,” she said.

Working toward co-survival
The Maine Coalition for North Atlantic Right Whales is reaching out to non-governmental organizations that have lobstermen in them. But not the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) or the Maine Lobster Union because those groups have been clear about their position that Maine lobstermen should not have to do any more gear changes for the right whales, McWeeny said.

“We are reaching out to local NGOs that work with lobstermen to try and find out how the average fisherman really feels about the situation and if we can provide any help toward on demand and other interventions,” he said.

The MLA has worked to ensure that Maine lobstermen have complied with the conservation measures that have been put into place to keep the oceans safe for right whales and allow the lobster fishery to operate, said Patrice McCarron, policy director for the MLA. 

A biological opinion is issued to analyze the impact of a proposed plan to decrease takes within a fishery.

“Unfortunately, the federal government developed a plan that MLA feared would put the majority of lobstermen out of business,” she said. “We worked diligently to raise our concerns with the federal government over its misuse of the science, but we were ignored.”

The right whale issue is not going away, said Kristan Porter, MLA board president.

“The whale issue is obviously the most important issue the industry faces,” he said. “We need to make sure that the new biological opinion is done correctly or we will be right back in the same situation in a few years.”

About Haley Hersey 4 Articles
Haley Hersey was born and raised in central Maine. She got her master’s degree in journalism from Emerson College and her bachelor’s degree in media studies from the University of Southern Maine. She has two tuxedo cats she adores and enjoys baking and cooking in her free time.