'Lobster-Whale Work Group' Faces Complicated Balancing Act As It Works To Protect Right Whales

Feb 1, 2019

Fisheries’ managers in the Atlantic states are considering a more proactive approach to regulating the lobster industry in order to reduce risks it may pose for the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

Under pressure from lawsuits and the requirements of the federal Endangered Species Act, the federal government is closely reviewing the health of the right whale population, which is hovering around 410 animals. The result could be the imposition of new gear and other restrictions to reduce the risk of whale entanglement with the rope lobstermen use to position and haul their traps.

That process was slowed by the recent government shutdown and, in the meantime, a new "Lobster-Whale Work Group," made up of state officials in the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, has proposed a slate of possible actions with the dual goals of protecting the whales and the "viability and culture of the lobster fishery."

"We're doing everything we can to appease the people who think it may be us," says Stephen Train, a lobsterman in Long Island, Maine.

Train chairs the states-level board that will take up the working group recommendations at a meeting in Virginia on Tuesday. The board will decide whether to set in motion a process that could lead to reductions in the amount of rope trawlers are allowed to use, the number of traps a boat can deploy, or even impose seasonal lobster fishery closures.

Train says it's a complicated balancing act.

"If we reduce the number of traps on a trawl, are we guaranteeing the same number of traps are staying in the area, or are we going to have increased effort that's going to offset the reductions? And yet we may have a whale regulation saying we can't have any more vertical line," he says.

The group will also consider purchasing a high-profile enforcement vessel to improve compliance with gear rules. No new whales were born during the last right whale calving season, adding to a two-year crisis that saw 18 whales die due to entanglements or ship strikes. The news is better so far this calving season; four right whale calves have been spotted off Florida over the past two months.

Originally published 3:16 p.m. Jan. 31, 2019