Earlier this week the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team met in person for the first time since 2012. This team of 60 members consists of scientists, conservationists, state officials, and members of the fishing industry hailing from all over the East Coast of the US. WDC has held a seat on this federally appointed team for over 10 years, but this was my personal first time attending the meeting, and it was an eventful meeting to witness!
There are seven Take Reduction Teams that are implemented in the US, all of which are legally required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act to reduce “takes” of marine mammals. In other words, too many whales and dolphins are being seriously injured or killed as a result of interactions with certain types of fishing activities at a level which is interfering with the population’s ability to recover. The Atlantic Large Whale TRT focuses protections mainly on the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, but is also required to protect humpback whales. What’s scary is the fact that this team has been in action for 19 years, and whales are still being inadvertently killed or injured at an unsustainable rate. This is particularly concerning when you consider the fact that the protection plan developed by the TRT is supposed to substantially reduce these takes within six months of implementation. This has never happened.
As I sat in this room filled with leaders in conservation, science, fishing industry and state officials, a few underlying points were repeatedly brought up. The most important one was the fact that in most cases, we don’t know where these whales are encountering the fishing gear that is causing their death or serious injury. We know that the entire east coast is host to large fishing communities, and we know that whales spend most of their lives nearby for various activities including migrating, feeding, and breeding. As a result, the potential for a whale to become entangled in fishing gear is nearly constant, making it difficult to track where the problems occur and sometimes which types of fishing gear can be most dangerous.
Fishermen employ gear marking schemes to indicate where they are fishing or what they aim to catch, though unique markings are not often on the lines, the part most often found on injured or dead whales. Most of these unique markings are contained on the buoys at the end of the line or tags on the traps, which sit on the ocean bottom. The connecting lines typically include some general markings to identify if they are vertical lines (the line that goes from the trap to the buoy) or broadly from which region they are fished (Northeast, mid-Atlantic, or Southeast). However, the line marking does not provide adequate information to identify the kind of gear or the local area it was fished when the whale encountered it, both of which are critical pieces of information to have to better understand where there are areas of risk. Whales also sometimes are able to shed their entangling gear, but often only after they have become mortally wounded from the event, so it is generally not possible to determine where the entanglement occurred. In any case of entanglement, the team disentangling the whale aims to collect the gear after freeing a whale, because any information they can gather will be helpful. Basically, managing this issue boils down to a lack of knowledge. This lack of knowledge has made it very difficult to develop more effective protections. But that is changing!
What I witnessed at this TRT meeting was the definition of working together. Members of the team (peacefully!) negotiated an agreement on what the new Take Reduction Plan will require. The conservation panel went into the meeting looking to close fishing in two areas with historically high sightings of whales, but need more data to understand how frequently whales actually became entangled there. As a result, they agreed to keep those areas open so long as the gear used to fish contains unique markings to identify that the gear was set in that location. If a whale becomes entangled, these markings will help better define areas of risk, and help create targeted protections for whales. State officials from Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island presented proposals to exempt certain areas very close to shore from a prohibition on single pot fishing. They explained that these individual small skiff fishermen would be at risk if they were required to fish trawls (more than one trap attached by a groundline to another).The conservationists and scientists present understood the plight of the fishermen but also wanted to ensure that whales would be safe as well. As a result, they conceded so long as the gear used in these areas (with a few exceptions) is also marked, and if a whale is documented to be entangled in this marked gear the Team would reconvene ASAP to discuss the case and implement future mitigations. Another important outcome of this meeting was an agreement that commercial fishermen will be required to more accurately report the amount of fishing gear they use. Knowing the location, and amount of gear in an area is critical to making meaningful regulations that will reduce risk.
Now it is the job of NOAA, the agency charged with implementing the Marine Mammal Protection Act, to consider these recommendations and publish a final Take Reduction Plan that incorporates all the agreements made over this three-day meeting. They will aim to complete this process by June 1st, which is a pretty tight deadline for a federal process! However, the agency acknowledges the need to reduce entanglements to large whales, and we couldn’t agree more.
This new plan will be a giant step forward towards our vision of a world where every whale and dolphin is safe and free, but there is still plenty of work to be done. We are asking for just $5 a month, which allows us to continue the important work of eradicating human-induced threats to whales around the world. Will you join us?