Northeast Coast Guard units and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Law Enforcement personnel are increasing focus this year on the enforcement of the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan (ALWTRP), to detect and deter illegally placed fishing gear and reduce the likelihood of fatal whale entanglements from occurring.
Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and in alignment with whale migration patterns, increased operations will run May 1 through June 30 and compromise of more frequent air and sea patrols in seasonal gear closure areas by NOAA law enforcement personnel and Coast Guard patrol boats, cutter crews, and air assets.
Additionally, Coast Guard units across the First District will engage in an operation taking aim on at-sea inspections of unattended lobster and gillnet gear. The goal is to identify and affect the removal of illegally rigged and improperly marked gear in an effort to decrease whale entanglements within New England’s waters.
Each spring, as nutrient rich waters yield large planktonic blooms, the North Atlantic right whale migrates to feed in these productive areas off New England’s coast. A variety of species, like humpback and fin whales, also display a strong presence throughout the spring and summer months. The right whale is of particular interest due to its status as an endangered species.
In 2017, NOAA documented the fatalities of 17 right whales within U.S. and Canadian waters. With an estimated population of 450 right whales remaining in existence, only 25 percent identified as breeding females, the impact of these fatalities is a major blow to conservation efforts and vitality of the species. Whale fatalities are often the result of human interference such as ship strikes or fishing gear entanglements. In at least seven of these documented whale fatality cases, fishing gear entanglements and ship strikes were deemed to be the main causes of death.
ALWTRP is an evolving plan that changes as NOAA Fisheries learns more about why whales become entangled and how fishing practices might be modified to reduce the risk of entanglement. It has several components including restrictions on where and how gear can be set; research into whale populations and whale behavior, as well as fishing gear interactions and modifications; outreach to inform and collaborate with fishermen and other stakeholders; and a large whale disentanglement program.