In this April 12 photo taken by Lisa Sette on Stellwagen Bank off of Massachusetts, a right whale known as “Kleenex” is entangled in fishing gear. Rescuers were working to disentangle the whale, which is a member of one of the rarest species of marine mammal in the world. Credit: Lisa Sette/Center for Coastal Studies | AP

A report by federal scientists says it’s time for a new look at regulations that aim to protect the endangered North American right whale — because they aren’t working and may have made things worse.

Over the past decade, regulators required lobstermen to change their gear and reduce the overall number of traplines in U.S. waters. But the new 30-page National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration technical memo finds that rope now in use is stronger, possibly in response to the regulations, with an unintended consequence of leaving right whales more likely to face potentially deadly entanglements.

They also find that as lobster seek cooler waters farther offshore, lobstermen are following them, right into likely whale travel lanes. Meanwhile, right whales are changing their patterns, too, swimming longer distances to forage for increasingly unpredictable prey species.

Credit: Courtesy of NOAA via Maine Public

In 2017 and 2018, 19 whales died from entanglement or ship strike — most of them found in Canadian waters — while stressed females produced only five calves.

With 450 North Atlantic right whales now left on the planet, the NOAA scientists say that if the current pace of decline continues, the species could be past the point of no return within just a few decades. And the report says more aggressive gear changes and other regulatory action may be required to avert extinction.

The findings foreshadow tough decisions coming next month, when a team of stakeholders tries to find compromise on gear changes — and federal regulators consider whether the Endangered Species Act requires dramatic action that could have big consequences for New England’s lobster industry.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.

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