Maine is getting a $700,000 federal grant to collect details about how the lobster industry deploys its fishing gear, especially rope, in an effort to help protect endangered right whales.

The species recovery grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will underwrite a three-year project scheduled to start this summer to collect information that federal regulators need for future deciding right-whale protection regulations. The government is considering what steps it could take to protect the roughly 450 surviving members of the species in the wake of 17 North Atlantic right whale deaths last year in Canadian and U.S. waters.

“This research will ensure that future regulations are based on current, relevant data,” said Erin Summers, biological monitoring division director of the Maine Department of Marine Resources and the person who will lead the collection project. “Maine has been involved in the development and evolution of whale protection regulations over the past two decades. … This study is another example of Maine taking a leadership role in the protection of whales.”

Regulators will need to know how and where fishing gear is used throughout the Gulf of Maine to understand the relative risk of whale entanglement. That’s one of several factors known to play a role in the dwindling number of right whales – ship strikes are the other major cause of death, and scarcity of the whale’s favorite food, copepods, also contributes to dwindling reproduction rates.

The project will ask harvesters from Maine to Connecticut to voluntarily share information about how they rig and fish vertical lines, the rope that extends from the floating buoy to the string of lobster traps on the ocean floor. Data will include rope type and diameter, trap configuration and depth, and distance from shore. The project also will include a study on the breaking strength of vertical lines and the amount of load put on the lines during different hauling conditions.

“Without a better understanding of vertical lines, regulators are more likely to implement sweeping regulations (that) might not be any more effective at protecting whales,” said Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher. “Good information from industry will increase the likelihood of targeted, effective regulations.”

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association will participate in the project. The trade association is willing to study the issue and take steps to protect the whales, but claims that regulators would have more success helping the species recover if they persuade Canada to adopt the slower ship speeds and fishing protection measures that have been in place for years in the U.S. The association noted that Maine lobster gear has not been linked to any reported right whale deaths.

Penelope Overton can be contacted at 791-6463 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PLOvertonPPH

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