Experts Advise Administration on Right Whale Entanglement

North Atlantic right whale and fisheries experts met last week to advise NOAA Fisheries on potential management actions to reduce the risk of lethal entanglements of North Atlantic right whales. The recommendations put forth at the meeting will inform the administration’s “Phase 2” rulemaking on fishery management measures expected later this year.

A North Atlantic right whale mom with her first known calf swimming 10 miles east of Wassaw Island, GA. Fishery regulations to protect right whales like these were debated at an expert meeting last week.

Georgia Department of Natural Resources under NOAA permit #20556

North Atlantic right whales are critically endangered and declining rapidly toward extinction. Entanglement in the vertical buoy lines associated with fixed-gear fisheries, including traps and pots used to catch lobster and crab, as well as gillnets, is one of the main causes of the species’ decline. Entanglements not only kill and injure whales but also impair their ability to produce calves and lead to malnutrition and ill health. Unless the risk of entanglement is dramatically reduced, North Atlantic right whales may become effectively extinct within 20 years.

NOAA Fisheries is required by law to manage fisheries so that the number of deaths and serious injuries from entanglement remains at or below a level that does not contribute towards the decline of the species. The number of North Atlantic right whales that can be killed or injured from any human activity without causing the population to decline is currently 0.7 individuals per year. Yet recent estimates indicate that a staggering 31.4 North Atlantic right whales were killed on average each year between 2015 and 2019. Seventy percent of these deaths are attributable to entanglement.

Rather than reducing the number of entanglements to safe levels within six-months, as required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, NOAA Fisheries is undertaking a phased approach to rulemaking over a ten-year period. In August 2021, the agency issued a rulemaking to reduce the risk of death and serious injury by entanglement in the Northeast lobster and Jonah crab fishery by 60 percent—known as the “Phase 1” rulemaking. The “Phase 2” rulemaking for the gillnet fisheries and other trap pot (OTP) fisheries that occur throughout the North Atlantic right whale’s range was initiated immediately thereafter, also targeting a 60 percent risk reduction.

However, new scientific information on the number of right whale deaths that go unobserved recently resulted in a necessary increase of the risk reduction target from 60 percent to 90 percent. NOAA Fisheries acted on this new information by updating the risk reduction target for Phase 2 to 90 percent and announcing a “Phase 3” rulemaking, where the management measures for the Northeast lobster and Jonah crab fishery will be revisited and revised to meet the required 90 percent reduction in risk.

A North Atlantic right whale with several fishing ropes wrapped around its flipper. These ropes could tighten over time causing injury and infection that may eventually lead to death.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission under NOAA permit #932-1905/MA-009526

The Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team—an official advisory body to NOAA Fisheries comprised of scientists, fishery managers and representatives, environmental groups, and state and federal officials—met last week to consider and put forth recommendations on how a 90 percent risk reduction target might be achieved for Phase 2 fisheries.

The Team made significant progress identifying and refining potential measures for gillnet and OTP fisheries coastwide. Discussions centered on a mix of potential measures to reduce the number of vertical buoy lines in the water, including increasing the number of gillnets or traps and pots per trawl and seasonal hot-spot closures, as well as weakening the strength of the rope used under the premise that a North Atlantic right whale could break free upon becoming entangled.

Ropeless fishing systems were identified by several members of the Team as an optimal way to reach the 90 percent risk reduction target while keeping fishermen on the water.

South Atlantic black sea bass fishermen test ropeless fishing systems. Ropeless fishing is now allowed in 15,000 square nautical miles of fishing grounds previously closed to protect North Atlantic right whales.

Sustainable Seas Technology

Frustrations were also expressed. Several members of the Team, including representatives from the fishing and environmental communities, asked NOAA Fisheries to accelerate rulemaking for Phase 3 and allow the Team to formally advise on both Phase 2 and Phase 3 fisheries during the meeting. This concern was based on the fact that achieving a risk reduction of 90 percent for Phase 2 fisheries would only lead to a 6 percent reduction in overall risk of entanglement to North Atlantic right whales due to the overwhelming impact of the Northeast lobster and Jonah crab fishery.

The tool to help the Team quantify the level of risk reduction associated with each potential management action was also a source of exasperation. North Atlantic right whale distribution maps important for understanding the degree of overlap with different fisheries did not reflect the most useful time periods for the task at hand. Assumptions related to the amount of risk reduction associated with different management measures are also largely untested. Several Team members expressed discomfort at the prospect of requiring fisheries to change their operations based on inaccurate information, particularly for so few gains in overall risk reduction for North Atlantic right whales.

The reliance on “weak rope” remained a point of concern for environmental groups. The assumption that adult North Atlantic right whales will be able to break free of rope with 1700lb breaking strength is entirely theoretical and has never been tested in the field. Importantly, even based on that theory, 1700lb of breaking strength is not weak enough for calves and juveniles to escape from. Recent scientific information also shows that North Atlantic right whales are shrinking in size and, presumably, strength. The ability for smaller animals to break free from weak rope has never been quantified. The negative effects caused by any entanglement can also prevent a female from successfully producing or safely raising a calf.

Entangled North Atlantic right whale mom "Snow cone" gave birth to her calf while entangled. The ropes put the safety of her calf at constant risk. Snow cone is one of fewer than 70 reproductive females remaining in the species.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. NOAA permit 20556-01.

In light of the discussions and proposals made at the meeting, NRDC requests that NOAA Fisheries:

  • Expedite Phase 3 rulemaking given the outsized impact of the Northeast lobster and Jonah crab fishery on survivorship of North Atlantic right whales.
  • Incorporate best available scientific information on right whale and fishery co-occurrence when determining which risk reduction measures will be included in the draft Phase 2 rulemaking.
  • Not rely on unproven weak rope as a risk reduction measure.
  • Ramp-up the use of ropeless fishing systems as the most effective way to reduce risk while allowing fisheries to remain in operation.

TAKE ACTION! Ask your members of Congress to support the Right Whale Coexistence Act to fund the development of fishing gear innovations and other technologies to reduce the risk to North Atlantic right whales from entanglement and vessel strike.

About the Authors

Francine Kershaw

Senior Scientist, Marine Mammals, Oceans Division, Nature Program

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.