For First Time, Maine Lobster Gear Linked To Right Whale Death

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For the first time, federal regulators have connected Maine’s signature lobster industry to the entanglement and death of a critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.

The animal, a 3-year-old female calf, was found washed ashore in late January on Martha’s Vineyard, off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, with rope wrapped around and embedded in its tail — the result of what a preliminary investigation described as “chronic entanglement.” The National Marine Fisheries Service, a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), on Wednesday confirmed that the rope had distinct markings used by Maine trap fishermen but stopped short of explicitly stating that the gear caused the whale’s death.

“Based upon our analysis of the gear, including the purple markings on the rope recovered from North Atlantic right whale #5120, NOAA Fisheries has concluded that the rope is consistent with the rope used in Maine state water trap/pot buoy lines,” the agency said.

An endangered North Atlantic right whale is entangled in fishing rope as it swims with a newborn calf off Cumberland Island, Georgia, in 2021.

Georgia Department of Natural Resources/NOAA via Associated Press

It is the first time gear from Maine’s fishery has been connected to a right whale fatality. The finding threatens to upend one of the main talking points that the lobster industry and Maine lawmakers have used to fight stricter regulations: that there have been no documented cases of a right whale dying after becoming entangled in Maine lobster gear.

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association said it was “deeply saddened” by Wednesday’s news.

“We know that entanglement in Maine gear is extremely rare,” the association wrote on its website. “This is the first reported entanglement of a right whale in Maine lobster gear in 20 years and the first death attributed to the fishery. Maine lobstermen have made significant changes to how they fish over the last 25 years to avoid entanglement and continue gear testing.”

Environmental groups have repeatedly swung back at the idea that the fishery isn’t harming the species, pointing out that unmarked gear has historically made it difficult to confirm where entangling ropes come from. It wasn’t until 2022 that lobster and Jonah crab trap lines were required to have colored markings specific to each Northeast state.

“The Maine lobster industry’s lobbyists and lawyers have been deceiving the public for years, claiming that Maine gear has never been tied to a right whale’s death, knowing full well that they’d successfully opposed gear-marking requirements for decades,” Jane Davenport, a senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife, said in an emailed statement. “Now that the Maine lobster industry finally has to mark its gear, it can no longer hide the truth.”

Maine’s lobster fishery has been the target of increasingly strict regulations in recent years as scientists scramble to keep North Atlantic right whales from going extinct. Their population has been steadily falling since 2010, with fewer than 360 individuals remaining. Fishing gear entanglement, vessel strikes and climate change are the biggest threats to the imperiled species.

In 2022, Maine’s congressional delegation, including Republican Sen. Susan Collins, successfully inserted a controversial provision into the $1.7 trillion federal government funding package that effectively blocked stricter rules meant to protect right whales from fishing gear, which a federal judge had ordered federal agencies to finalize by 2024. The measure cemented existing regulations for another six years. The Maine delegation called it a “lifeline” for the state’s lobster industry while environmentalists warned it could drive right whales to extinction.

The young whale found dead on Martha’s Vineyard had a long history of entanglement, first spotted in August 2022 with multiple lines wrapped around her tail and flukes and about 200 feet of line trailing behind her. The last time she was spotted, in June, her wounds appeared to be more severe and her condition had declined significantly, according to federal regulators.

“For more than half of its short life, this young whale suffered from rope embedded in its tail, causing a slow and needless death because our government was unable to enact proper protections to prevent entanglements,” Gib Brogan, a campaign director at the environmental group Oceana, said in a statement Wednesday. “Because of industry lobbying and Congressional interference, more whales are at risk of long, slow, gruesome deaths like this one.”