A North Atlantic right whale surfaces on Cape Cod Bay in Massachusetts, Monday, March 27, 2023. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty, NOAA permit # 21371 / AP

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Jack Merrill is a member of the Cranberry Isles Fishermen’s Co-Op, a Maine Lobstermen’s Association board member, and an advisor to the Lobster Institute.

The historical record of Maine lobstermen is clear. One right whale entangled in 2004 was disentangled and swam free. No right whale death has ever been attributed to Maine lobster gear. Gov. Janet Mills and our congressional delegation, without partisanship, acknowledge Maine lobstermen are not a threat to the right whale population. 

Despite never having seen one in the 50 years I’ve fished; I’ve made multiple changes to make my gear more whale friendly. These changes have been time-consuming, expensive, and potentially dangerous to me and my crew but resulted in less rope in the water.

Even the biggest proponents of ropeless traps realize it’s probably a decade away from being feasible. The cost must come down and the technology must become more reliable. 

Currently, with buoys on the surface, environmental conditions (wind, tide, wave heights, the sun, etc.) make it difficult to locate traps. We set traps with other lobstermen’s gear in mind, trying to avoid tangles. Snarls are no fun, but every lobsterman lives with some. They’re especially dangerous now that we’ve “trawled up,” putting more traps on a single end line, greatly increasing the weight load. Many days it’s hard to keep your balance as the boat rocks, lurches, twists, and pounds on an animated sea. Recalibrating these ropeless traps under often difficult weather conditions, including fog, would be close to impossible. And, if one relies on cell phone service to activate ropeless traps, it poses a problem since service on the water is full of dead zones.

Whales use hydro-acoustic transmissions to communicate, navigate and survive. Today, a portion of the East Coast is experiencing a catastrophic number of whale strandings and deaths. Some say evidence points responsibility toward production and deployment of offshore wind turbines. Underwater noise, not only amplified during construction, but emanating from turbine use, is disorienting the marine environment. That’s not totally surprising. I n 2018, at the height of offshore turbine activity in the U.K., 1,000 whales washed up and died, according to a conservation group. It’s unknown if ropeless traps pose as big a threat, but their underwater noise clearly needs to be understood.

Worldwide there are more than 1 million species that are endangered. Some bird, fish and animal populations have declined at alarming rates. (Sharks and rays have decreased an estimated 70 percent in 50 years.) Right whales themselves have fared somewhat better as their numbers have grown since the 1980s. Today’s population numbers are highly debated, from NOAA’s official count of 340 to over 600. 

Counting whales is not easy and is skewed by several factors. NOAA uses a tool called “cryptic mortality” which essentially assumes three whales have died for every dead whale they see. Another confusing factor is, according to researchers at the New England Aquarium, newborns are not counted until they have been photographed and identified. Identification cannot start until months after birth because their head markings are not yet distinctive. DNA identification is difficult because of sea conditions and uncooperative animals. Both IDs require sightings and whales can go unseen for years, especially after they separate from their mothers.

NOAA fails to give anyone confidence when it uses words like “minimum,” “conservative,” “assumed,” “estimated,” theoretical,” and “random” in its calculations.

An encouraging fact is that 64 calves were born in the last five years (47 to date in the last three) .

I have argued for years that a more accurate and less costly count could be made employing unmanned drones, combining digital cameras with artificial intelligence, using a process called “photogrammetry,” well known by the military and scientific communities.

Unfortunately, right whales face much more dangerous threats than Maine lobster gear. Increased shipping traffic,  natural predation, toxic chemicals, other forms of pollution, dwindling food supplies due to global warming, and industrialization of the ocean (including wind turbines) all have negative impacts. 

Hailed by many as the  most conservation-minded fishery in the world, the lobster fishery will continue to take spray in the face, open to any common-sense changes. Like our congressional friends, we support research and better science to help these resilient whales navigate through a world dominated by human needs.