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Maine is launching a new research program to collect more data about right whales' whereabouts

A North Atlantic right whale surfaces on Cape Cod Bay in Massachusetts, Monday, March 27, 2023. The protected species has been at the center of a longtime dispute between federal regulators and commercial fishing and shipping industries.
Robert F. Bukaty (NOAA permit # 21371)
/
AP
A North Atlantic right whale surfaces on Cape Cod Bay in Massachusetts, Monday, March 27, 2023. The protected species has been at the center of a longtime dispute between federal regulators and commercial fishing and shipping industries.

With more than $17 million in hand, Maine has a new plan to search for the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.

State officials hope to the use the newly gathered data to advocate for Maine's fishing industry.

Specifically, state scientists will place 26 new passive acoustic monitors around the Gulf of Maine, in addition to the eight others that have been in the water for the last three years, to listen for right whales.

And soon an outside company hired by the Department of Marine Resources will fly small planes over the Gulf in attempt to spot them.

"Spring in particular, when whales are leaving Mass Bay and coming up along the coast," said DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher. "Certainly we would want to do some additional flying in the fall, around some areas around Jeffreys [Ledge] and the existing closed areas."

The work is designed to produce much-needed data on the presence or absence of right whales in Maine, Keliher said Monday. The data will be peer-reviewed, published and shared with federal officials who will draft new regulations designed to reduce entanglement risks to right whales within the next five years.

"It's really all about trying to create as much certainty for the industry with better data," Keliher said.

The Maine lobster industry has argued for years that federal officials have relied on broad assumptions when issuing new regulations aimed at protecting right whales, and an appellate court earlier this year agreed.

Yet the work of tracking a species with fewer than 350 individuals is notoriously difficult. And though federal and non-profit science agencies have some information their whereabouts — scientists have, for example, said that right whales appear to be using the Bay of Fundy less often in recent years to forage — conservationists, federal regulators and fishermen have all indicated that they're looking for more details about the species' presence in the Gulf of Maine.

Eventually, DMR will have about two dozen people dedicated to this research, which Maine traditionally has not conducted on its own due to a lack dedicated funds.

Keliher said Maine's aerial surveys are intended to fill in some data gaps, not duplicate what others, such as the New England Aquarium, are already doing. Visual observers will also travel by boat to search for right whales.

And eventually, Keliher said he's hopeful that the department will be able to use acoustic monitors to track the species in real time, with the idea of using the collected information to manage the lobster fishery if whales have been detected in a particular area.

"It is this data that I think will put us in a position of being able to really focus in on potential problem areas, understand those areas, and honestly, come up with a better solution than just large-scale closures," he said.

In addition, the funds will pay for so-called on-demand fishing gear and will compensate Maine lobstermen for testing it out. Maine, earlier this year, also received a $5 million grant to support the testing of alternative lobster fishing gear.

Fishermen are skeptical, Keliher acknowledged.

"My take home to the industry is: This is coming, and if you're going to just say no, that gives us nothing for data to say how well this will work, or how well it will not work," he said.

The $17 million come from the federal spending bill that Congress passed late last year. That law, which was championed by Maine's congressional delegation and lauded by the lobster industry, also paused the implementation of new federal regulations designed to reduce the risks posed by fixed-gear fisheries on right whales.