North Atlantic right whales are critically endangered, with a population of fewer than 400 and numbers continuing to decline. The causes? Ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear—specifically, the vertical ropes that attach crab and lobster pots on the seafloor to buoys at the surface.
To help this dwindling population recover, The Pew Charitable Trusts petitioned Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to take immediate action. (The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which sets regulations for fishing in federal waters, is part of the Commerce Department.) Our analysis of publicly available science about where and when right whales feed and migrate indicates that closing four areas off New England to high-risk gear—specifically, lobster and crab traps that use thick vertical ropes—when right whales are likely to be present could help reverse this species’ decline.
The closures we recommend are the best action NOAA’s Fisheries Service could take right now to protect right whales. Because the majority of lobster fishing is in state waters—up to 3 miles from shore—and these proposed closures are almost entirely offshore in federal waters, most lobster fishermen would not be affected by what we’re proposing. This action is needed to reduce the amount of heavier fishing gear used in key areas offshore, which NOAA Fisheries agrees presents a more lethal threat to right whales than the smaller-scale gear used closer to shore.
In addition, these recommended closures could be put in place quickly, while NOAA Fisheries works on long-term solutions to minimize whale entanglements. With the agency’s current timeline to propose new rules this summer, it would will likely take well more than a year before they take effect on the water.
But, as we’ve written before, right whales cannot afford to wait until the new rules are in effect off New England. The first step to recovering the population must be to reduce the number dying. With 30 right whale deaths documented in just the past three years, and two whales recently seen entangled in U.S. waters, action is needed immediately.
The four areas would be closed only to lobster gear that uses vertical ropes, and only during the times of the year when right whales are most likely to be present. Fishermen could still use other types of gear, including emerging “ropeless” technology, in these areas.
Specifically, we’ve petitioned for: a year-round closure south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, two smaller, seasonal closures in the western Gulf of Maine and off Mount Desert Island, and an offshore closure to protect right whales as they migrate between Canadian and U.S. waters. We’re asking the commerce secretary to implement these measures immediately to protect right whales until permanent rules are put in place.
Further delay in efforts to protect right whales will only worsen the problem. NOAA Fisheries should act now to put targeted closures in place.
Peter Baker is a project director and Katharine Deuel is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ campaign to protect Atlantic Ocean marine life off the U.S. and Canada.