Statement from Commissioner Keliher Regarding Recent Right Whale Mortality

DMR Bulletin

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Lobster Industry Members,

I have some difficult news to share. On January 28, 2024, a juvenile North Atlantic Right Whale was found dead on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Unfortunately, preliminary observations by NOAA indicate the whale, identified as #5120 in NOAA’s right whale catalog, was entangled by rope that included purple marks which are consistent with the gear marking requirements for Maine lobstermen. I along with key policy, science, and enforcement staff went to Gloucester, MA to inspect the gear, review NOAA findings and question them regarding any discrepancies we saw.  Unfortunately, the gear is consistent with Maine trap/pot gear.

This is very unfortunate – our goal is zero entanglements.  Certainly, this is a rare event, in fact it is the first right whale entanglement with known Maine gear since 2004. It is also the first right whale mortality with known Maine gear that DMR is aware of since the establishment of the Take Reduction Plan.

Here’s what we know:

This whale, #5120, was last observed gear-free in the Great South Channel on May 1, 2022.

The whale was next observed entangled in August 2022 by Fisheries and Oceans Canada off the coast of New Brunswick, in the Gulf of St Lawrence.

Several sightings occurred in 2023, both in the US and Canada, where the whale was still entangled and seen in declining health.

A necropsy of this whale was completed on February 1, 2024, and preliminary results confirm chronic entanglement with rope embedded in the tail. There is no sign of blunt force trauma indicative of a ship strike. 

No buoy was collected with the rope which could help identify the gear owner and potentially help determine a precise location of entanglement. While no green markings were found on the rope, Maine DMR has not concluded if this gear is consistent with state or federal waters gear. With only two purple marks retrieved and portions of the surface system missing, Maine DMR analysis of the recovered gear could indicate different gear configuration scenarios, some of which suggest state waters and others which suggest federal waters. We are continuing to investigate to see if we can better answer this question.

There is no doubt this is an unfortunate incident. Since 1997 the Maine lobster industry has shown its commitment to whale protection by engaging in the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team and providing NOAA with guidance in the development of measures to protect right whales. Further, the Maine lobster industry has invested millions of dollars to adopt gear marking, insert weak points, and meet trawling-up requirements.

This incident does highlight the importance of DMR’s work to better understand right whale presence in the Gulf of Maine. It also validates the need for improved fisheries data which will come from recently enacted requirements for state licensed and federally permitted lobster harvesters. DMR’s highest priority remains the collection of robust data to better inform the characterization of risk in Maine’s waters. Maine’s comprehensive initiative to establish a passive acoustic network, conduct visual surveys, improve the collection of fisheries data, and invest millions of dollars in a Maine on-demand gear library which, through collaborations with partners, will be testing gear and educating coastal communities will be critical as we move forward.

Entangling a whale is not something any fishermen wants see or hear about.  This news will undoubtably also brings with it a fear and anxiousness around what could come next from NOAA.  It is important to point out that while terrible news, it doesn’t change the fact that Congress has stated in law that this fishery is in compliance with the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act until December 31, 2028.

Please know that DMR’s investigation into this event is ongoing. A final entanglement report from NOAA will take some time to prepare. As Maine DMR has more information, we will be sure to share it with industry.

Patrick Keliher
Maine Department of Marine Resources