PRESS RELEASE

New Federal Licenses May Sink Lobster Fleets 

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For Immediate Release:  Wednesday, July 29, 2020
Contact:  Kyla Bennett (508) 230-9933; Kirsten Stade kstade@peer.org

New Federal Licenses May Sink Lobster Fleets  

NOAA’s Past Accommodations of Lobster Industry Come Back to Bite It  

Boston — After a series of court rulings caused by repeated scientific misrepresentations from senior National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) officials, New England’s lobster industry is facing the prospect of new permitting requirements that will be impossible to meet, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The backdrop is the downward spiral of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales largely due to entanglements in lobster fishing lines and other fishing gear, such as Canadian snow crab lines.

A federal court order requires Massachusetts agencies to obtain an “incidental take” permit under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) from NOAA before allowing lobster fisheries’ vertical buoy ropes (VRB) in Massachusetts waters. The deadline for obtaining the ESA permit is today. If they do not obtain a permit, the plaintiff in the lawsuit can seek a preliminary injunction to halt state licensing of VRBs. These permits are premised on NOAA finding that these incidental takes of right whales will not threaten the survival of the species. But the current North Atlantic right whale population is roughly 400, and entanglements in fishing gear – particularly VRB – are causing continuing sub-lethal injury and deaths of these marine mammals.

“More entanglements mean the extinction of right whales,” stated PEER Science Policy Director Kyla Bennett, a biologist and attorney formerly with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Under legal standards, NOAA cannot issue the permits lobster boats will require.”

PEER contends that the key factor in this impasse is that NOAA has long suppressed findings by its own scientists that entanglements imperil the remaining right whales. Meanwhile, senior NOAA managers have repeatedly misrepresented the true, dire state of affairs:

In court filings as recent as July 2, 2020, NOAA officials argue that there is “no conclusive evidence demonstrating that protected [right] whales” have been entangled in fishing gear licensed by [NOAA].”  However, NOAA’s own data show a whale entangled in 2016 was caught in gear from “MA state waters.”  In addition –

  • NOAA’s data show that there were 15 right whale entanglements in 2017, 12 in 2018, with another highly publicized case in February of this year;
  • NOAA also asserts in court filings that they have “determined that continued operation of the lobster and gillnet fisheries is not likely to irreparably harm the species as a whole during the pendency of this case….”  This contradicts the conclusions of NOAA’s own scientists as well as findings of the Marine Mammal Commission; and
  • NOAA’s past rosy right whale population assessments have proven tragically incorrect; for example, in 2016, the Director of NOAA’s Office for Protective Resources stated in an interview, “The population had been doing very well. We had been seeing a real increase in the population.” NOAA’s own website says there has been a “downward trend that began around 2010.”

“NOAA’s track record suggests the agency will try to redeem past scientific mistakes by making even more,” added Bennett, pointing to NOAA senior officials’ statements that the “population had been doing very well.”  “By avoiding the hard choices that it should have been making over this past decade, NOAA has precipitated the very biological train wreck it has been predicting would not happen.”

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See April 30, 2020 Court Order 

See paper written by NOAA scientists re: the effect of fisheries on the right whales

Look at PEER’s critique of NOAA right whale positions

See right whale incident data through 2018 (click on the ‘Entanglements only’ tab)

See interview with Director of NOAA’s Office for Protective Resources