Fishing and Right Whales in Maine

Entangled Whale
Aerial view of an entangled right whale.

Entangled fluke
Entangled right whale trailing gear.

Entanglement in fishing gear is one of the two main sources of direct human caused injury and mortality of the North Atlantic right whale (the other being ship strikes). Lobster gear, specifically, has been involved in a number of entanglement cases (PCCS 2009a). With Maine waters accounting for the majority of lobster fishing effort on the US east coast, along with being visited regularly by right whales, recent management strategies have attempted to address the risk of entanglement by requiring the use of sinking ground lines between traps in lobster trap trawls, adding weak links in trawl buoy lines, as well as others (Federal Register 73(196):58942-3, 8 October 2008).

These overarching regulations, however, don’t take into account fine-scale data on fishing effort or whale behavior. Similar to the statistically significant reductions in expected ship strike risk by shifting traffic lanes in the Bay of Fundy (Nichols and Kite-Powell 2005; PCCS 2009b), it is believed that reductions in entanglement risk could also be achieved by better understanding the temporal and spatial distribution of right whales and lobster fishing effort (and gear) in the areas where the two overlap as well as how different combinations of whale activity and lobster gear configurations contribute to the risk of entanglement.

Working with the Maine Lobsterman Association and scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and Keene State, we are studying the spatial and temporal overlap of lobster fishing and right whales to gain a better understanding the entanglement risk in Maine state waters. This is being done with the development of a comprehensive model of entanglement risk that can support efforts to reduce this risk in meaningful and cost-effective ways.

Three components are involved in this development including (1) a temporally and spatially explicit distribution of right whales; (2) a temporally and spatially explicit distribution of lobster fishing effort and gear configurations; and (3) a risk model, utilizing 1 and 2, to predict entanglement risk of right whales in lobster gear under differing management strategies.

We have been involved in developing component 1, a temporally and spatially explicit distribution of right whales. Below is a figure characterizing right whale distribution summarized to irregularly shaped fishing zones whose boundaries represent the most fine scale fishing effort and gear data compiled. Please check back as this project is still in progress and other components are being developed.

Right whale distribution
Modeled right whale distribution.
Click to view larger image.

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Nichols, O.C. and H.L. Kite-Powell. 2005. Analysis of risk to North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) from shipping traffic in Cape Cod Bay. Report to NOAA Fisheries. Center for Coastal Studies, Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies (PCCS). 2009a. Right whale disentanglement records.

Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies (PCCS). 2009b. Right whale Shipping lanes and whales.