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NOAA Fisheries Seeking Input on Measures to Reduce Whale Serious Injuries and Mortalities

Humpback whale breaching.  Photo credit: NOAA

North Atlantic right whales.  Photo credit: NOAA.

Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the number of deaths or serious injuries due to commercial fishing activities must not affect a species’ ability to reach or maintain its optimum sustainable population. At present, the number of serious injuries and mortalities for right whales is nearly double sustainable limits and more than double the sustainable limits for humpback whales.     

NOAA Fisheries, in consultation with a team of fishermen, conservationists, state managers, scientists and gear experts first developed its Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan in 1997. The intent was to reduce the level of serious injury and mortality of three endangered stocks of large whales (North Atlantic right, humpback and fin whales). Enacted measures were also intended to benefit minke whales, which are not endangered, but are also caught incidentially in gillnet and trap/pot gear.  

As we learn more about how whales become entangled and how fishing practices can be modified to prevent or reduce injuries and deaths due to entanglements, we make revisions to the management plan. Currently, the plan includes a combination of broad-based gear modifications, time-area closures, disentanglement measures, research and outreach.

Despite these efforts, serious injuries and mortalities due to entanglements in vertical lines in trap/pot and gillnet gear continue to occur. Therefore, additional modifications to the plan are needed.

Proposed measures include a number of alternatives that were derived from proposals submitted by Take Reduction Team members and from comments received during the public scoping meeting process. 

We plan to hold 16 public hearings in ME, MA, RI, NH, VA, NJ, NC, SC, GA, and FL to gather public input on the newly proposed measures.  Public comments will be accepted through September 13. Details about the times and locations of the public hearings are available on our website.   For more information on the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan please click here.

Specific Requirements under the Marine Mammal Protection Act

Through the 1994 Amendments to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Congress made a number of changes in the regulations governing the incidental take of marine mammals in commercial fishing operations. Under these changes to the act, we are required to develop and implement take reduction plans when the number of serious injuries or mortalities of a species exceeds a level that the population can support while continuing to recover or remaining healthy (optimum sustainable population). 

 The Act set an immediate goal:

Within six months of a specific plan’s implementation, incidental mortality or serious injury of marine mammals accidentally taken in commercial fishing operations had to be at levels less than the populations’ Potential Biological Removal level. Potential  Biological Removal  level is the maximum number of animals which may be removed from a marine mammal stock by human actions, without preventing the stock from reaching or maintaining  its optimum sustainable population. 

And a long term goal:

Within five years of its implementation of a plan, the incidental mortality or serious injury of marine mammals had to be reduced to  insignificant levels approaching a zero mortality and serious injury rate what was termed, the Zero Mortality Rate Goal. The Zero Mortality Rate Goal is defined as 10% of a marine mammal stock’s Potential Biological Removal level.  

What Prompted this Action?

Annual injuries and mortalities for right whales should be below 0.9, but it is currently around 1.6 for U.S. Fisheries.  For humpback whales the rate of occurrence of serious injuries and mortalities should be below 2.7 but right now the rate attributed to U.S. fisheries is around 5.2. To provide some sense of what this means in terms of actual number of whales being impacted, from 1997-2008 there were 364 large whale entanglement events.  In 2012 there were 42 entanglements, 5 right whales were entangled and 27 humpback whales. While these numbers may seem low, for a vulnerable species like the North Atlantic right whale, where fewer than 450 animals may exist, even low numbers of  serious injuries and whale deaths are cause for concern.  Even for humpbacks, a species that is well on its way to recovery, Federal Law only allows for a small number of animals to be subject to serious injury or mortality from commercial  fishing. 


Steps Taken to Reduce Serious Injuries and Mortalities due to Fishing Gear

At its 2003 meeting, the Take Reduction Team agreed to manage entanglement risk by first reducing the risk associated with groundlines (fishing line that runs along the bottom between lobster and fish traps or nets). Over the next several years a variety of broad-area measures were developed and instituted.  Among these measures was a new requirement for fishermen to use sinking line to reduce the presence of fishing line in the water column and minimize the chances of whales getting entangled in free floating fishing line.  Another requirement was that fishermen use weak links in their gear so that it more easily breaks when whales become entangled. 

Since that time, the Take Reduction Team has been focused on reducing coast-wide entanglements in vertical lines (lines that connect surface buoys to gear on the seafloor) from lobster trap/pot and other trap/pot fisheries. NOAA Fisheries accepted proposals outlining vertical line risk reduction strategies tailored to specific areas and fisheries. Five proposals were submitted from state agencies, the scientific/academic community and non-government organizations. Each proposal was analyzed.  Key measures considered – did the proposal effectively reduce the number of vertical lines in the water column and was it focused on areas with the highest concentration of both fishing gear and whales in the Northeast and coast-wide.

Given very limited data on exactly where, how and when large whales get entangled in commercial fishing gear, the Take Reduction Team decided to support development of a model to look at relative densities of vertical lines, whale presence, and the co-occurrence of vertical lines and whales. Use of this model allowed the Take Reduction Team to focus on areas and seasons where the risk of entanglement may be the greatest.

MA Restricted Area 1 (Preferred Alternative) (Jan 1-Apr 30)

Jeffreys Ledge (Preferred Alternative) (Oct 1-Jan 31)

  Jordan Basin (Preferred Alternative) (Nov 1-Jan 31)

  MA Restricted Area 2 (Jan 1-Apr 30)

Cape Cod Bay Restricted Area (Feb 1-Apr 30)


Proposed Measures to Address Vertical Line Entanglements

In the Northeast Region, we are proposing to require an increase in the minimum number of traps per trawl based on area fished and miles fished from shore to reduce the number of vertical lines in the water column.  We are also proposing several seasonal closures alternatives for all trap/pot fisheries:  Jordan's Basin (Nov 1 to Jan 31); Jeffreys Ledge (Oct 1 to Jan 31); Cape Cod Bay (Feb 1 to April 30); Massachusetts Restricted Area #1: Cape Cod Bay, Outer Cape to Great South Channel (Jan 1 to April 30); and Massachusetts Restricted Area #2: Cape Cod Bay and Outer Cape (Jan 1 to April 30).  We are also proposing to increase the size and frequency of the current gear marking scheme for both trap/pot and gillnet fisheries.

To reduce interactions in the Southeast Region, we are proposing to use an existing management area, the  Southeast Restricted Area North to establish gear setting requirements for vertical line breaking strength and reducing the weak link strength in trap/pot fisheries; require all vertical lines to be made of sinking rope and object free in trap/pot fisheries; require a single trap per buoy line; and in federal waters require that trap/pot gear be brought back to shore at the end of each trip.  We are also proposing to increase the size and frequency of the current gear marking scheme for both trap/pot and gillnet fisheries.

The specific fisheries that would be affected by these proposed measures include: Northeast/Mid-Atlantic American lobster trap/pot; Atlantic blue crab trap/pot; Atlantic mixed species trap/pot which includes, but is not limited to: crab (red, Jonah, and rock), hagfish, finfish (black sea bass, scup, tautog, cod, haddock, pollock, redfish (ocean perch), and white hake), conch/whelk, and shrimp; Northeast sink gillnet; Northeast anchored float gillnet; Northeast drift gillnet; Mid-Atlantic gillnet; Southeastern US Atlantic shark gillnet; and Southeast Atlantic gillnet.

Click here to view the Draft Environmental Impact Statement which contains more about these proposed measures and their impacts.