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Biologist warns that without new regulations, right whales will be 'functionally extinct' by 2035

A North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay, March 28, 2018, off the coast of Plymouth, Mass.
Michael Dwyer
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AP file
A North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay, March 28, 2018, off the coast of Plymouth, Mass.

Maine lobstermen testified in Washington Tuesday against a bill that could put the industry back on the hook for regulations aimed at protecting endangered right whales. But without them, a marine biologist warns the whales could become functionally extinct within the next 12 years.

The warning came from Michael Moore of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who told federal lawmakers that based on their current trajectory, North Atlantic right whales are in "immediate jeopardy." Fewer than 70 breeding females remain. And Moore said that number will plunge deeply if no conservation measures are taken within the next five years.

"The black arrow [indicates that in] 2035 [there will be] no more breeding females, no more calves," he said. "The species will be functionally extinct in 2035."

Michael Moore testimony to the House Natural Resources Committee
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Michael Moore

Moore testified Tuesday before a House panel of federal lawmakers in support of the RESCUE Whales Act introduced earlier this year.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Arizona, would eliminate a provision that pauses the development of new federal right whale regulations on the lobster and Jonah crab fisheries for the next five years. That provision was championed by Maine's congressional delegation, which slipped the measure into the latest federal spending bill during the final days of 2022.

The measure is widely popular with the Maine industry itself, which says it's been unfairly regulated despite taking steps to reduce whale interactions with fishing gear.

Fishermen have added weak lines into their end lines, replaced floating rope with sinking rope and complied with the seasonal closure of nearly 1,000 square miles of prime fishing ground, said Curt Brown, a Cape Elizabeth lobsterman and marine biologist for Ready Seafood.

"This effort has worked," he told members of a House Natural Resources subcommittee. "If there are two numbers that you remember from my testimony today, remember zero and zero. There have been zero documented entanglements of a right whale in Maine lobster gear since 2004. And there have been zero documented mortalities associated with Maine lobster gear, ever."

But just 8% of all documented entanglements have involved right whales observed carrying fishing gear, and Moore said that complicates the picture that the Maine fishery has painted.

"There is more to the story," he said. "Marking of the gear has become a requirement recently. But even with good marking, if you're only going to get 8% of those entanglements showing up with gear to examine, there's an awful lot of uncertainty with that zero, zero statement."

Brown and Virginia Olsen of the Maine Lobstering Union — who were introduced by Democrat Jared Golden of the state's second congressional district — both said the RESCUE Whales Act would have devastating consequences on their families, Maine's coastal communities and the state's economy as a whole.

"This bill, which was drafted by radical environmental groups for a representative from Arizona, would put thousands of hardworking Mainers out of work without meaningfully protecting one right whale," Brown said.

Yet Sam Rauch of the National Marine Fisheries Service said the current regulatory pause could spell more trouble for fixed gear fisheries down the road. To keep the species alive, no more than one right whale can die each year. Today, the population is losing about three whales each year, he said.

If that trajectory continues over the next six years, Rauch said federal regulations issued in 2028 could be more stringent than they would have been otherwise to make up for lost time.

The RESCUE Whales Act now faces several votes in the U.S. House and Senate.