Right whale defenders are now taking aim at aquaculture as they try to protect the highly endangered species from deadly fishing gear entanglements.

Advocates usually focus on the lobster industry, which is estimated to account for a million surface-to-seabed trap lines in East Coast waters, when talking about entanglement risks faced by the North Atlantic right whale, whose numbers have now dwindled to fewer than 450. But animal rights groups asking for federal intervention to avoid extinction of the whales are now asking regulators to reduce the threat of aquaculture entanglement, too.

Researchers from Whale and Dolphin Conservation, a U.K.-based nonprofit that advocates for marine animals, want regulators to reduce surface-to-seabed lines in all Gulf of Maine fisheries, not just lobstering. They name aquaculture and gill net as rope-based fishing methods that are known to entrap, injure and kill both humpback and right whales. They say it’s not fair for regulators, who are meeting next week, to seek rope reduction from lobstermen while issuing permits for other fisheries that use similar rope.

The proposal does not say how to implement this aquaculture reduction, or if it should apply to in-shore, near-shore or offshore operations. Maine has a small but rapidly growing aquaculture industry, accounting for about a quarter of Maine’s documented $6.5 million-a-year shellfish harvest. But consultants believe the value of Maine’s farmed oysters, mussels and scallops will more than quadruple in value over 15 years.

A market analysis prepared for the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in 2016 predicts Maine’s shellfish aquaculture industry will grow to $30 million by 2030.

It has been cited in multiple economic development reports as having enormous potential for significant growth.

Leaders of Maine’s aquaculture industry say they aren’t aware of any interactions in Maine waters between aquaculture rope and right whales. Chris Davis of the Maine Aquaculture Innovation Center in Walpole says Maine aquaculture is almost exclusively conducted in inshore waters, and thus is not likely to overlap with right whale habitat.

The Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife and Center for Biological Diversity – which filed suit against the federal government in January for failing to protect whales from fishing gear – want to ban aquaculture operations year-round in any area that would be closed seasonally to protect whales, such as Cape Cod Bay, where right whales show up in large numbers to feed from February through mid-May.

These proposals are two of six submitted to the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, a group that helps write the federal government’s plan to reduce the number of whale injuries and deaths, especially those caused by entanglement. The team will meet next week in Providence, Rhode Island, to review the proposals as it considers what changes it will make, if any, to its whale plan in response to the recent lawsuit.

The proposals under consideration also include several that would drastically upend the Maine lobster industry, which last year was credited with contributing $1.6 billion to Maine’s economy. The proposals include seasonal closures in the western Gulf of Maine, a reduction in the number of lobster traps that can be fished and a two-year transition to a completely ropeless lobster fishery. Lobster industry groups say its gear has not contributed to the rash of right whale deaths over the last two years that have left the population in such dire straits.

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

[email protected]

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