Talks Address Measures to Reduce Right Whale Deaths

The Take Reduction Team votes in approval of the National Marine Fisheries Service moving forward with recommendations to reduce serious injury and mortality of right whales resulting from incidental entanglement in fishing gear
Credit: Credit: F. Kershaw / NRDC

New recommendations to save North Atlantic right whales from entanglement have been presented by fishermen, NGOs and scientists to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).

Following four days of deliberation, the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team came to near consensus on a suite of measures that could potentially reduce serious injury and mortality of right whales by at least 60 percent. NMFS will consider the recommendations as part of a new proposed rulemaking that will dictate the agency’s future work to protect right whales.

The recommendations are a promising start. All fisheries representatives agreed to reduce the number of vertical lines they are currently fishing, including halving the number of lines in some areas. Removing rope from the water is the most effective way to reduce risk of entanglement and so this represents a meaningful step forward for right whales.

But we still have more work to do to ensure the survival of North Atlantic right whales. NMFS's decision not to discuss ropeless gear as a potential measure at the meeting is unfortunate. The intention was to focus the discussions on “near-term” risk reduction measures; however, work towards long-term goals should always start soonest. We therefore urged NMFS to continue efforts to advance ropeless gear in parallel with implementing other measures (our public statement is posted in full at the end of this blog).

There was also significant emphasis on transitioning towards using slightly weaker rope, termed “breaking strength” rope, or other equivalent types of gear modification. Scientific studies suggest adult right whales may be strong enough to break 1700 lb pulling force rope after they become entangled. However, this assumption is largely theoretical and has not been tested in the field. There is no hard evidence that breaking strength rope will work in practice.

Moreover, breaking strength rope will not necessarily avoid serious injury or mortality. Any rope can become wrapped around the mouth of a whale and damage its baleen plates, impairing its ability to feed. Calves and juveniles are not strong enough to have any chance of breaking 1700 lb rope and will continue to die at the same rate. Chronic entanglement, where right whales carry gear for months or years leading to painful injuries, starvation, and impaired reproductive ability, will also not be reduced by a transition to breaking strength rope. Many chronic entanglements lead to mortality after a whale has suffered for many years.

Removing all rope from the water is the only way to guarantee protection for precious right whale calves and juveniles
Credit: Credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, NOAA Research Permit #15488

An additional concern is that the most severe entanglements are being caused by the heavy ropes used in the offshore fishing area. Unfortunately, it was unclear at the end of the meeting what the timeline would be for the offshore fishery to implement any conservation measures. A request was made by the offshore fishery for a five-year research program to help develop solutions rather than committing to significant near-term reductions in vertical lines (breaking strength rope is thought to be too weak to be used in deeper offshore waters).

Right whales simply cannot withstand another five years of entanglement in heavy offshore gear while a research program is undertaken. We will be urging NMFS to consider closing the offshore fishery (known as “Lobster Management Area, or LMA, 3”) until real solutions are commercially available, such as ropeless fishing.

What happens next? NRDC will continue to advocate for stronger right whale protections during the drafting process of NMFS’s proposed rule. The proposed rule will be made available for public comment later in the summer at which point we’ll be looking to you, our dedicated supporters, to join the fight to save our precious North Atlantic right whales from possible extinction.

To take action now, please reach out to your congressional representative and ask them to support the SAVE Right Whales Act of 2019, which will provide a critical source of federal funding to protect right whales from entanglement.

NRDC Public Statement, Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team Meeting, April 26, 2019

Good morning everyone, my name is Francine Kershaw. I am a marine mammal scientist and I submit these comments on behalf of the Natural Resources Defense Council. We’d like to start by expressing appreciation for the efforts and thoughtful deliberations of the TRT and the opportunity for members of the public to observe those discussions and provide comment.

We agree with others in the room that the proposal set forth this morning represents a reasonable starting point. That said, the urgency of this situation cannot be underscored enough. Near-term action needs to be taken in all fishing areas and perhaps most rapidly in the offshore fishery where heavier gear poses the most serious risk of mortality and serious injury. Right whales cannot withstand another five years of exposure to entanglements in heavy offshore gear while a research program is undertaken in LMA3.

In addition, while we appreciate the need to keep the discussions at this meeting focused on near-term reductions in serious injury and mortality, it is clear that chronic entanglement also has serious implications for the survival and recovery of the species, and in many cases eventually leads to mortality. This fact should not be lost in the agency’s deliberations.

Unfortunately, reduced breaking strength rope and many of its equivalents are untested in the field and will not necessarily avoid serious injury or mortality, particularly if, as is often seen, the rope damages the baleen and impairs feeding ability. Calves and juveniles will not experience any reduction in risk from a transition to 1700 lb rope and chronic entanglement rates will also not be reduced.

The survival of right whales depends on ending all types of entanglement. Therefore, we support all efforts to remove rope from the water, including through meaningful vertical line reductions as discussed here and an expeditious transition to ropeless gear.

For longer-term management goals, such as advancing ropeless gear to a point of commercial viability, it is even more important to lay the groundwork for success now. Work towards goals that take longer should always be started sooner. Efforts to quickly advance ropeless gear should therefore continue in parallel with the other “near-term” risk reduction measures the agency takes up from this meeting.

We recognize that saving the right whale will require significant economic investment. Members of the NGO community are currently working to help secure federal funds to support these efforts. We have requested $5 million dollars in Appropriations for FY20 and the SAVE Right Whales Act of 2019 has recently been reintroduced in the House with bipartisan support. If passed into law, the SAVE Act would provide five million dollars per year for the next ten years towards solutions for entanglement and vessel collision. The Act will soon be marked up and voted on in the House and we respectfully ask that you and your constituencies reach out to your representatives to show your support for the bill. The bill number is HR 1568.

Finally, I’d like to reflect on the story of the vaquita which is now on the verge of extinction. The vaquita shows us just how quickly we can lose a species, going from a count of 567 individuals in 1997 to half that in 2016 to only 10 today. Despite every possible conservation resource that was dedicated towards its recovery it was not enough. Why? Because the help came too late and the fishing gear responsible for vaquita bycatch is still in the water.

NRDC, and our three million members, will be looking to the agency, in the development of the take reduction plan, to take strong measures commensurate to the degree of risk right whales are currently facing. The public is expecting that lessons will have been learned from the vaquita and that every effort will be made to save right whales from the same fate and from becoming the first great whale to be lost in modern times.

Thank you.