Save America’s Wildlife

NOAA must act to save the right whale and comply with the law

The agency can help speed up the transition to ropeless fishing by incentivizing newer, safer fishing technology.

NOAA via Flickr | CC-BY-2.0

Earlier this fall, NOAA Fisheries took public comments on its proposal – officially called the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan – to save the North Atlantic right whale. Our letter is below. 

But first, a little background… As a result of a lawsuit by Center for Biological Diversity, NOAA Fisheries was forced to make changes to comply with the Endangered Species and Marine Mammal Protection acts. 

With fewer than 350 remaining, the North Atlantic right whale is on the verge of extinction. Scientists warn we cannot afford in any given year to lose a single right whale. Yet, since 2017, right whales have suffered from an ongoing “unusual mortality event” where nine right whales have died from entanglements and 20 have suffered serious injuries. And many right whale deaths are undocumented. 

The leading cause of death and serious injury is fishing-line entanglements. Once caught in a vertical line, a whale can drag the heavy gear for months, exhausting them to the point of starvation and making them vulnerable to disease. Too often death comes slowly to the whale. 

To save the right whale and to comply with legal requirements, NOAA must enact a strong suite of measures to significantly reduce entanglement risk. 

In our comment to NOAA, we addressed two of the key regulatory actions that must be taken to protect the right whale from traditional fishing gear entanglements. NOAA Fisheries must embrace seasonal and year-round closures for traditional lobster traps and it must speed the transition to on-demand – also known as ropeless – fishing gear. 

While there are some year-round and seasonal closures already in effect, warming water temperatures are pushing right whales further North earlier in the year. This is creating a need for new restricted areas and longer closures. To prevent entanglements, these restricted areas should be closed offto vertical buoy lines in areas where right whales congregate, feed, breed and migrate. Only ropeless gear should be allowed. 

These closures are a key step toward saving the right whale, but the best way to stop entanglements is to remove all vertical lines from the water. Ropeless fishing gear removes the vertical line threat. Unfortunately, the adoption of this new technology has been slow

The idea of switching to new technologies and practices can be daunting to businesses, but losing the right whale as a species entirely – and the resulting impacts on ocean ecosystems – is an unacceptable outcome, and thus the transition to new technologies must be made. 

NOAA Fisheries should help speed up the transition to ropeless fishing by incentivizing this newer, safer fishing technology by allowing lobster companies to use it in closed areas.

You can read our full comment below:

Marisa Trego
Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team Coordinator

National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration
55 Great Republic Dr,
Gloucester, MA 01930 

October 11, 2022

Re: Scoping Comments on Notice of Intent to Prepare an Environmental Impact Statement on Modifications to the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan Regulations to Reduce Mortality and Serious Injury of Large Whales in Commercial Trap/Pot and Gillnet Fisheries Along the U.S. East Coast (NOAA-NMFS-2022-0091)

Dear Ms. Trego: 

On behalf of Environment America and our state groups, please accept these comments on the National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NOAA Fisheries) proposed modifications to the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan to reduce Mortality and Serious Injury of Large Whales in Commercial Trap/Pot and Gillnet Fisheries. 

The North Atlantic right whale is dangerously close to extinction. Fewer than 350 remain, and of that number, fewer than 100 are breeding females. Birth rates are down. And since 2017, the right whale has suffered from an ongoing unusual mortality event. These facts come from the NOAA Fisheries page, and they reinforce the need for urgent, effective measures from NOAA Fisheries to save this magnificent species. 

Not only do the facts beg for urgent action, but the law requires it. The Secretary has a mandatory duty under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act to immediately promulgate interim (emergency) regulations to protect the North Atlantic right whale from the entanglements that are killing and seriously injuring it. Consistent with the request for emergency and permanent rulemaking filed by Pew Charitable Trusts, Environment America, Environment Massachusetts, Georgia Wildlife Federation and One Hundred Miles in July 2021, the Secretary should immediately implement a network of seasonal and year-round vertical line trap/pot gear closures while the new rule that fully meets the requirements of the MMPA and ESA is developed and implemented. In developing the final vertical line closures for the emergency action, as recommended in the Petition, NOAA Fisheries should consider any updated best available scientific information and the closures currently being developed as part of the take reduction team process.   

As part of the current proposed rulemaking and consistent with the court findings in the Center for Biological Diversity, et al., v. Raimondo, et al., (Civ. No. 18-112 (D.D.C.) case,  NOAA Fisheries must reduce the mortality and serious injury of right whales to effectively zero. To achieve this legal requirement, NOAA Fisheries should enact a strong suite of measures to significantly reduce entanglement risk. Doing so will require an extensive response, and we are supportive of the highest level of action needed to achieve NOAA’s legal duty of preventing the extinction of this protected species. 

We would like to highlight two of the key regulatory actions that will help achieve this aim. We recommend seasonal and year-round vertical line closures accompanied by measures to speed the transition to ropeless trap/pot fishing. 

NOAA Fisheries must embrace seasonal and year-round closures.  

NOAA Fisheries used its emergency action authority to create a closure in Massachusetts Bay. This and more of it is needed. As part of this action, NOAA Fisheries must implement a network of seasonal and year-round vertical line trap/pot gear closures. Similar to the areas requested in the aforementioned petition, these restricted areas should include significant seasonal and regional closures to vertical buoy lines in areas where right whales congregate, feed, breed, and migrate in order to prevent entanglements that threaten this whale.  

We must speed the transition to ropeless fishing gear. 

The adoption of new lobster practices, in particular ropeless fishing gear, has been slower than needed to save this species, and we must speed the transition to ropeless gear. To that end, Environment America has supported congressional budgets that provide funding for ropeless gear. Additionally, closing large areas to vertical buoy lines while simultaneously allowing ropeless fishing practices would create a whale-sized incentive for commercial trap/pot fishing companies to embrace this new and necessary technology. NOAA Fisheries should take this action. 

In sum, NOAA Fisheries can and must create a future of coexistence between the North Atlantic right whale and lobster trap/pot fishing. A combination of closures to vertical lines for trap/pot fishing combined with allowing ropeless fishing is urgently needed as cornerstones of a plan to save this protected whale. 

We urge NOAA Fisheries to fulfill its duties and take necessary and decisive action to save the endangered North Atlantic right whale within the 6 month timeline required by the law. 

Sincerely, 

Steve Blackledge
Conservation Program Director  

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