New England Fisheries

Gillnet Interactions with Right Whales Fall Under Scrutiny

A sink gillnet on the seafloor. Image via NOAA Fisheries.

As the New England Fishery Management Council begins work on its 2019 priorities, a group of six conservation organizations called on our regional managers to develop measures that minimize interactions between Council-managed fisheries that use sink gillnets and critically-endangered North Atlantic right whales. The organizations include Center for Biological Diversity, Conservation Law Foundation, Defenders of Wildlife, the Humane Society of the United States, Oceana, and Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

To date, most of the conversation around fishing gear entanglements of right whales in U.S. waters has been focused on the American lobster fishery, but the groups state: “This narrow focus is inappropriate and allows other fisheries with known and documented takes of right whales to escape scrutiny and necessary management response.” For true progress to be made, however, it’s important to address all threats to right whales.

The threat of gillnets

A gillnet is a type of fishing net that is hung vertically in the water from lines attached to buoys on the surface (a sink gillnet rests near the seafloor). Because of the vertical lines in the water column, right whales can become entangled, potentially leading to injury or even death. As noted by the conservation organizations, right whales can be found year-round in the waters south of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard where access for the gillnet fishery has expanded – a dangerous combination.

Specifically, New England’s sink gillnet fishery (fishing for groundfish, monkfish, dogfish, and skates) have had interactions with right whales dating back to at least 1983. The groups note, “33 percent (8/24) of the right whale entanglement cases documented between 2010 and 2013 were in gear consistent with that used in the gillnet fishery.”

This is exactly why the Council is being asked to “take a hard look” at gillnet fishery interactions with right whales.

Protected under the law

The groups call attention to two laws that protect marine mammals: the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA). When NOAA Fisheries authorizes fishery management actions, such as an amendment to a fishery management plan, it must ensure that the action does not jeopardize the continued existence of the species or adversely modify its habitat.

These laws require that measures are in place to protect right whales, but currently, more right whales are killed every year than the population can sustain. Additionally, as the agency considers and evaluates new, mandatory management actions during its ongoing ESA consultation (initiated in November 2017 for nine fisheries including the sink gillnet fisheries in New England), the groups say that “it is not currently apparent to the public that the Council has discussed such additional management measures, much less developed any such measures.”

The conservation organizations, however, identify five specific actions that the Council can take this year to address the situation (see here for the full list), and they are not alone in urging fishery compliance with these laws. The Take Reduction Team (a creature of the MMPA) has long tackled this issue, and recently, during the 2019 priorities discussion at the December Council meeting, NOAA Fisheries Regional Administrator Michael Pentony “encourag[ed] those with a stake in these matters to consider being proactive.”

Even though the time for being proactive has passed (effective management measures should already be in place), the Council should begin the discussion. A letter submitted by the New England and Mid-Atlantic Councils to NOAA Fisheries – asking to be involved in the ongoing ESA consultation – was briefly discussed at this week’s Groundfish Committee meeting, but there could have been more conversation, for example, around the specific analysis the Council would require in order to develop effective management measures.

At least it was start.


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