The Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) is undertaking a new research program intended to improve federal regulators' understanding of endangered North Atlantic right whale (NARW) presence in the Gulf of Maine (GOM), and to explore alternative lobster fishing gear types.
The lack of data on NARW presence in the GOM has resulted in sweeping federal regulations to protect NARWs that have caused economic hardship for Maine's critically important lobster industry. The goal of DMR's NARW research is to make sure federal regulators have the data they need to develop more targeted regulations that minimize the impact on fishermen.
Because future federal rules to protect right whales are very likely to require the use of alternative gear in certain areas of the GOM, DMR will also be engaging fishermen in testing alternative fishing technology to ensure that the real-world experience of fishermen helps developers and regulators understand what works and just as importantly what does not work.
Right Whale Monitoring
Better understanding of right whale habitat use will improve the ability of federal regulators to assess the risk of serious injury and mortality to right whales from fixed gear fisheries.
DMR's program will collect data on the presence of NARWs in the Gulf of Maine across time and space using multiple methods of detection including passive acoustic monitoring, aerial surveys, and boat-based surveys. Habitat data will also be collected, with a focus on monitoring zooplankton, to better inform how NARWs may be using the GOM now and into the future.
Information collected will bolster the ability of the Decision Support Tool (DST) to evaluate risk.
The DST is a software program that helps managers understand the relative risk to NARWs by incorporating data on whale distribution, location of the fishery, and configuration of gear. It also allows managers to evaluate entanglement risk reduction under different combinations of management measures and relative risk factors.
Having better data on whale distribution as well as gear location and configuration which will come from the 2023 implementation of 100 percent harvester reporting and the requirement for federally permitted lobster vessels to have trackers, will vastly improve the ability of the DST to assess risk.
Alternative Gear Research and Library
The Department of Marine Resources is researching alternative gear retrieval technology including less expensive options such as electronic timed-release and spring release systems. DMR will also be researching sub-sea gear location technology which is essential for alternative retrieval systems to work. DMR's research will evaluate various on-demand systems which could provide opportunity for Maine lobstermen to fish in areas closed to traditional fishing gear.
DMR's Maine Innovative Gear Library will provide Maine fixed gear fishermen access to different gear types to test at no cost. Testing by fishermen will ensure a real-world understanding of the capabilities and challenges of different technologies, and will allow DMR to examine where, and at what scale, these alternatives may be necessary and operational. Testing will allow DMR to quantify the risk reduction of each gear type.
Given the very high likelihood that future federal regulations will require alternative fishing gear in certain areas of the GOM, it is critically important that fishermen participate in this testing. Without industry's participation in testing, technology could be approved and required that does not work for Maine fishermen.
Improved Fisheries Data
One of the persistent challenges in assessing the entanglement risk to NARWs in the Northeast has been the availability of data on lobster fishing effort. This lack of data on fishing effort has resulted in a flawed method of risk assessment due the need for assumptions about where and when fishing occurs.
DMR will be working to integrate improved data sets on fishing effort to update the Decision Support Tool used to determine risk to right whales.