Washington, DC

Today, National Marines Fisheries Service (NMFS) Assistant Administrator Chris Oliver responded to the Maine Lobstermen’s Association’s September 4 letter announcing its withdrawal of support for recommended measures to protect the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale from fishing gear entanglements. In April 2019, the recommendations had been adopted with near-unanimous support from the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, composed of representatives from state and federal governments, fishermen and fishing industry organizations, scientists, and conservationists. NMFS also attached a document containing rebuttals and clarifications to the association’s challenges to the scientific data underlying the risk reduction targets that NMFS established for the Team.   

Jane Davenport, senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife, issued the following statement: 

“We’re happy to see NMFS push back against the Maine Lobstermen’s Association’s misleading claims. The science is all too clear: entanglements in the vertical fishing lines used in lobster and crab trap/pot fisheries cause right whale death rates to rise and birth rates to fall. Entanglements accounted for 51% of diagnosable right whale deaths between 2003 and 2018 and will cause many more if U.S. and Canadian fisheries don’t act immediately. We urge NMFS to move forward with a strong, evidence-based rulemaking process to substantially reduce the entanglement risks from the hundreds of thousands of vertical lines in U.S. waters.” 

Additional Background

  • In addition to accounting for 51% of diagnosable deaths between 2003 and 2018, scarring data shows that nearly 85% of right whales have been entangled at least once and 59% at least twice in their lives.
  • While North Atlantic right whales once numbered in the tens of thousands, there are now only around 400 surviving right whales, a number now declining every year.
  • Today, there are only 95 surviving adult female right whales of reproductive age – fewer than there are U.S. senators.
  • Since June 2019, at least ten right whales have been killed, including four breeding-age females, as a direct result of human activity. Science tells us that many right whale carcasses are never spotted and that the actual number of human-caused mortalities is significantly higher.
  • Only twelve right whale calves have been born over the last three years. Deaths now outnumber births. 
  • Right whales do not live to old age. The two causes of death in adult right whales are ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements. The stress of chronic non-lethal entanglements is also delaying reproduction in adult females from one calf every 3-4 years to one every 10.

Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With over 1.8 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit defenders.org/newsroom and follow us on Twitter @Defenders.

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Jake Bleich
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