U.S. urges change in fishing practices to save endangered whales

(Reuters) - U.S. commercial fishing practices must change to prevent the extinction of North Atlantic right whales, the administration of President Joe Biden said on Thursday, as it prepares a list of new regulations to prevent whale entanglements in lobster and crab gear.

The scientific assessment from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries unit is a milestone in finalizing a handful of proposed reforms of commercial fishermen mainly intended to reduce the amount of vertical rope in whale habitat.

The lobster industry, centered in Maine, has said it is willing to make changes to protect the whales if necessary, but argues that they have seen little evidence their gear is to blame for whale deaths.

North Atlantic right whales are one of the world’s most endangered large whale species, with less than 400 individuals remaining. An estimated 20 die each year in U.S. and Canadian waters due to entanglements in fishing gear and to ship strikes, NOAA said.

The United States has been trying to protect the whales for decades under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and Canadian authorities have also imposed ship speed restrictions and other measures to protect them.

“As the population of right whales continues to decline, we must acknowledge that previous efforts have not reduced entanglements to the degree needed to satisfy ESA and MMPA requirements, and additional efforts are necessary to recover this critically endangered species,” NOAA said.

It added that the whales are also vulnerable to the effects of climate change and exposure to fishing, shipping and other dangers in unregulated parts of the sea.

Late last year, NOAA proposed new regulations on lobster and crab fishermen, including requiring more traps between buoy lines to reduce the number of vertical ropes in the water, adding breakaway sections to rope so whales can break free if tangled, and restricting buoy lines in certain areas during seasonal whale migration.

A NOAA spokeswoman said Thursday's assessment comes in support of those proposals. She said NOAA expects to finalize those rules later this summer before beginning new rulemakings on other fisheries.

(Reporting by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Marguerita Choy)