Federal Regulators Take Heat From Both Sides Of The Right Whale-Gear Debate

Oct 4, 2019

Federal fisheries regulators are taking heat from both sides of the debate over protections for the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

The latest salvo comes from a conservation group representing public employees, which says the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) ignored its own scientists when it reopened groundfishing areas that had been closed for decades.

Earlier this year, NMFS reopened 3000 square miles of ocean south of Nantucket to groundfishing, allowing the use of gillnets and rope. The agency said that based on previous regulatory reviews and some more recent scientific articles, it could not find sufficient evidence to conclude that fishing gear alone causes a decline in the health of large whales — and that further review was not necessary.

Conservationists say the agency cherry-picked the evidence.

"It doesn't pass the straight face test," says Kyla Bennett, the New England director for a national group called Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER. 

PEER is filing a complaint with the the Inspector General of the U.S. Commerce Departmen — the parent agency for the National Marine Fisheries Service — calling for an investigation of whether top officials at the fisheries agency ignored, possibly on purpose, a wealth of recent research publications showing that fishing gear in general, and gillnets in particular, can entangle whales and pose a threat to the species' survival.

Bennet says the agency could have found the evidence in its own back yard.

"Most of them were authored by NMFS scientists themselves,” Bennet says. “It is beyond the pale to think that NMFS didn't know about these or is dismissing them out of hand. I just don't think it's possible."

Bennett says she hopes that the Office of Inspector General will interview the agency's scientists, find that the agency has taken a false position in an ongoing lawsuit over the ground-fishing areas, and that the areas will be closed again.

A NMFS spokesperson referred questions to the Inspector General. An OIG spokesperson says that agency has yet to formally receive the complaint.

Meanwhile, NMFS also has been under fire from the other side of the issue, from the Maine Lobstermen's Association (MLA). The MLA has alleged that the agency was ignoring evidence that it had overstated the relative risk Maine's lobster fishery poses for right whales.

Last month, when she sent her analysis to the feds, MLA Executive Director Patrice McCarron said: "The bottom line for us is that we can not responsibly recommend that our members act alone in undertaking changes in our fishing practices, that all of the parties that pose risk to right whales need to move forward together if we have any chance in saving the species."

This week NMFS sent McCarron a nine-page response. Its bottom line was, essentially, that it was using and providing all the best available science in its development of risk reduction targets — targets it now says could require Maine's lobster fleet to remove half the trap-rope it has in the water.

A NMFS spokesperson, Jennifer Goebbel, declined to provide comment other than to say that the group’s work on new rules would continue.

"We are continuing to meet with representatives from Maine and are proceeding with rulemaking in the coming months as planned," Goebbel says.

Originally published Oct. 3, 2019 at 5:32 p.m. ET.