Maine lobster group blames Canada for most right whale deaths, injuries

The Maine Lobstermen's Association has backed out of a plan to protect North Atlantic right whales, claiming it was rushed to adopt unduly strict measures when the most serious threats to the endangered species are from Canada and other fishing gear.

Maine Lobstermen's Association also pulls out of deal to reduce number of buoy lines

The Maine Lobstermen's Association says it was pressured to reach an agreement in April to reduce the number of its buoy lines in the water. (Center for Coastal Studies/NOAA)

In a series called Deep Trouble, CBC News explores the perils facing the endangered North Atlantic right whale. 

The Maine Lobstermen's Association has backed out of a plan to protect North Atlantic right whales, claiming it was rushed to adopt unduly strict measures when the most serious threats to the endangered species are from Canada and other fishing gear.

In an Aug. 30 letter to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, executive director Patrice McCarron withdrew the association's support for a recent agreement to cut the number of buoy lines in the water to reduce the risk to whales from the lobster fishery by 60 per cent. 

"The data are clear that Canadian entanglements and vessel strikes are now the most significant cause of right whale serious injury and death," McCarron wrote.

Using data from 2010 to 2018, she attributed the serious injury and mortality of right whales from known human causes to:

  • U.S. and Canadian vessel strikes — 48 per cent (with 17 per cent of ship strikes coming in Canadian waters).
  • Canadian snow crab fishery — 31 per cent.
  • Gillnet and netting gear — 13 per cent.
  • Unknown trap/pot gear — four per cent.
  • U.S. trap/pot gear — four per cent.

The agreement was reached in April by the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, an advisory body made up of representatives from U.S. government, industry and environmental groups.

But McCarron told National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) administrator Chris Oliver their own analysis showed the plan was based on flawed data that overestimated the risk posed by the northeast U.S. lobster fishery and underplayed risks from Canada and other gear types.

"The MLA cannot responsibly recommend its members undertake changes in fishing practices when whales may continue to become entangled in fishing gear, such as gillnets, which are not included in the current rulemaking," she wrote.

The Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team agreement is being used by U.S. authorities to develop new fishery regulations for 2020.

Association says it was pressured to reach deal

McCarron claims Maine lobstermen were pressured to reach an agreement to avoid "jeopardy" from a pending and separate NOAA review of right whale risk-reduction measures for the lobster fishery, a process known as a "biological opinion."

A NOAA spokesperson said a statement from the agency that will respond to the Maine Lobstermen's Association concerns is expected Thursday.

In a statement to CBC News, Fisheries and Oceans Canada did not directly address the claims made by the Maine Lobstermen's Association, but repeated its commitment to protecting right whales.

Scientists examine external wounds on the body of a deceased, juvenile North Atlantic right whale discovered off Martha's Vineyard on Aug. 27, 2018. (IFAW, NMFS Permit #18786-03)

Spokesperson Robin Jahn said there are records of gear entanglement in both Canadian and U.S. waters.

"In light of the unprecedented deaths of [North Atlantic right whales] in both Canadian and U.S. waters in 2017, including in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada implemented a comprehensive suite of fisheries management measures and initiatives for fish harvesters in Atlantic Canada, focused on preventing entanglements," Jahn wrote.

Environmentalists urge U.S. to stay the course

Canadian and American environmentalists expressed disappointment with the Maine lobstermen's decision, but say further protections are needed in American waters to prevent extinction.

It's estimated there are about 400 North Atlantic right whales worldwide, with under 100 breeding females.

"This is an industry group who has every right to say we don't agree with this anymore, but that doesn't change the mandates of the states or the federal government to take action," said Regina Asmutis-Silvia of Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

Sean Brilliant of the Canadian Wildlife Federation said Canada deserves some blame, but said it's unfair to suggest it hasn't responded, pointing to fishery closures and ship speed reductions.

He said the Maine lobster fishery, like others that put rope in the water, will have to be part of the solution that reduces risk.

"When a big partner like that walks away, in addition to not contributing or participating in any sort of risk mitigation efforts, it kind of weakens the overall process," he said.

"To lose that partner and to suggest that they don't have confidence in this or don't believe in the direction that it's going sort of really slows things down."


Paul Withers


Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.