Fewer Lobster Traps, Shorter Season Would Benefit Right Whales and Lobstermen

Contact: Justin Kenney, 215.575.4818, Margaret Bowman, 202.552.2131

Washington, D.C. - 01/09/2007 - Maine lobstermen can protect the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale and improve their profits at the same time, according to a scientific paper published today in the journal Current Biology. A team of researchers, led by Ransom Myers of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia and supported by the Lenfest Ocean Program at the Pew Charitable Trusts, compared the Nova Scotian and Maine lobster fisheries and found that Maine lobstermen could substantially reduce the number of traps, shorten the fishing season by as much as six months and still catch the same amount of lobsters at lower cost. Doing so would protect right whales by reducing the risk of entanglements in fishing gear, a key obstacle to the recovery from the brink of extinction for this large, slow-moving mammal. "This is a classic win-win situation," says Boris Worm of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, one of the authors of the study. "Given the high fuel and bait costs lobstermen incur, a shorter season and fewer traps will actually save money without reducing their catches."

The North Atlantic right whale remains critically endangered despite more than 70 years of protection. Their recovery is hindered by accidental mortality from ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. Scientists previously found that photographs of right whales show that 75 percent bear evidence of entanglement, predominately from lobster fishing gear. Lobster traps are tied to the surface via a buoy line and to other traps via ground lines, leading to entanglements as right whales swim and feed in the Gulf of Maine. Despite government regulations aimed at reducing entanglements, the problem is worsening.

This study highlighted stark differences between neighboring Nova Scotian and Maine lobster fisheries. Nova Scotian lobstermen are restricted to a winter season, whereas Maine lobstermen are permitted to fish year-round. In addition, Nova Scotians use 88 percent fewer traps than their Maine counterparts. Despite these differences the actual landings patterns are similar, clear evidence that there is substantial wasted effort in the U.S. portion of the fishery.

"Industry and government agencies have struggled to modify lobster and other fishing gear to reduce the risk of whale entanglement. But nothing can work as well as reducing the amount of excess gear in the water," says Andrew Rosenberg from the University of New Hampshire, a co-author of the study.

The researchers point out that some Maine lobstermen have already taken steps to reduce the number of traps in an effort to reduce costs and maximize returns. On Monhegan Island, for example, lobstermen have voluntarily gone to a winter season of 180 days per year, allowing them to pursue other incomes while lobster populations are rebuilding. An additional economic advantage is that a targeted lobster fishery outside the summer molting season yields a higher quality product and better prices, the study states.

"This research shows that Maine lobstermen have a tremendous opportunity to reduce entanglements with right whales, greatly reduce their operating costs and still catch the same amount of lobsters," says Boris Worm.

The article entitled "Saving Endangered Whales at No Cost" is authored by Ransom A. Myers, Stephanie A. Boudreau, Robert D. Kenney, Michael J. Moore, Andrew A. Rosenberg, Scott A. Sherrill-Mix, and Boris Worm. It appears in the journal Current Biology, and is available at www.lenfestocean.org.

About the Lenfest Ocean Program

This research was supported by the Lenfest Ocean Program. The Program was established in July 2004 by the Lenfest Foundation and is managed by The Pew Charitable Trusts. It brings the best scientific research to bear on identifying the causes, consequences and solutions to problems facing the global marine environment. For more information visit www.lenfestocean.org.

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