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In Fight Over Right Whales And Lobster Fishery, All Sides Want To Know More About Whale Activity Off Maine

Right Whale Research
Center for Coastal Studies Via Associated Press

The historic migration patterns of endangered North Atlantic right whales have been changing in the last decade, possibly due to climate change. Federal regulators, meanwhile, are considering drastic measures to protect the whales against deadly entanglement in fishing gear and rope.

So the question of where and when the whales are swimming in relation to Maine's lobster fishery is gaining urgency. Now, new efforts are underway to pinpoint their travel habits.

Last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric administration created a new website that maps almost two decades of work to detect whales off the east coast, via "passive acoustic" recorders set on buoys, on submerged platforms, and on underwater gliders that can zig and zag around the Gulf of Maine for months at a time.

"We're seeing that you are getting whales. They are calling," says Genevieve Davis, a research biologist at NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole.

Davis says that late last year, data retrieved from recorders parked within a few miles of the coast documented right whale calls in state waters near York, near Monhegan Island, and near Lubec. Those detections were the closest to shore in more than a decade.

The data do have some limits: detectors aren't always in the water, for instance; the animal could be located anywhere within the recorder's detection range of roughly six miles; and while a vocalizing whale's species is comparatively easy to identify, it's nearly impossible to tell one right whale's voice from another's.

"We have a very strict protocol in terms of looking for when we say that right whales are present. So we have to get three calls within a day of when we say they're there, and we do that to be confident so that it's not just a possible call, not just a passing sound. So when we do say they are there on the map, they are definitely there," Davis says.

The maps show an abundance of recent, confirmed detections to Maine's south, in Cape Cod Bay, to the east, near Nova Scotia, and to the north, in Canada's Gulf of St. Lawrence -- all areas that over the last decade have emerged as important feeding grounds.

The recent detections nearest to Maine's coast are much fewer. But detectors at work farther out are finding more. And Zack Klyver, a member of a local advocacy group called the Maine Coalition for North Atlantic Right Whales, says direct evidence is mounting that the whales are ranging widely, east of Maine's shoreline.

"I think that's what the acoustic detections show. Everywhere you look at that map you see signals. Along the coast of Maine there's less, but as you move out to Mt. Desert Rock there's more, and then you get to Jordan Basin ten years ago and almost every day there was a signal," Klyver says.

Some lobstermen say that in lifetimes spent on the water, they've never seen a right whale. Klyver, a long-time whale-watch leader, says that over three decades, he's seen them almost every year.

"One year we saw five right whales south of Jonesport. On another day I saw seven near Mt. Desert Rock, and they actually stayed for a number of days. And in December, one year, I saw 35 near Jordan basin," Kylver says.

Klyver says new federal regulations should focus on the risk of fishing-gear encounters where right whales are most clearly traveling with some regularity - east of Maine's "shelf" waters where depths drop rapidly from 300 to 600 feet deep.

He's calling for more data. And some in the lobster industry are too. Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, says NOAA's new web portal is an useful contribution to the debate.

"It's super helpful to be able to visualize it, to see on a chart where they are detecting whales," McCarron says.

The most recent detections, she says, are consistent with the belief that right whales rarely swim near Maine's coastline, in waters where most of the lobster fleet is active. But more data are needed, she says, to get a firm handle on what's actually happening.

"These data haven't really filed in that gap yet, because either just aren't enough listening devices out there to inform us of how many whales may be actually present, and co-occur with our fishery," McCarron says.

It's been difficult, though, to finance whale-monitoring efforts off Maine. That's for the simple reason that funders were more likely to get a bang for their buck - a detection for their dollars - in well-known feeding grounds elsewhere.

"It's been hard to convince funding agencies to put that kind of money forward for that kind of return," says Erin Summers, who directs fisheries monitoring and assessment for the state Department of Resources. She says the Maine Community Foundation now is granting DMR more than $300,000 to deploy seven passive-acoustic monitors at sea.

Summers says they will provide basic data that can guide more aggressive work -- aerial surveillance, boat visits, real-time monitors that can quickly transmit data to shore. Ideally it will all provide credible information to help the fixed-gear fishing industries respond to evolving federal rules.

."It'll be a lot easier to have that conversation when we can offer them that feedback about how and when whales are utilizing the same habitats that they are fishing in, and what that might mean for the future of regulations in their area, and how we can target any future resources to ask better questions," Summers says.

The new monitors will be installed later this summer. Sites aren't finalized yet, but some might be placed in areas where federal regulators are considering seasonal fishing closures. Some could go to areas off Maine where right whales were known to congregate, and even breed, decades ago.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.