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Ropeless Fishing Gear Could Aid Maine's Lobster Industry, Endangered Whales

North Atlantic right whales get caught in lobster and crab fishing lines, preventing them from swimming, diving or feeding normally. (Photo courtesy NOAA)
North Atlantic right whales get caught in lobster and crab fishing lines, preventing them from swimming, diving or feeding normally. (Photo courtesy NOAA)
August 19, 2019

PORTLAND, Maine — Researchers say conservationists and the fishing industry must work together to save the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. Only about 400 of these whales are left living in the wild, and scientists say human activity is to blame for their decline.

Ship strikes and fishing-gear entanglements make up about 90% of all North Atlantic right-whale deaths, yet some in Maine have been resistant to proposed federal regulations they fear could hurt the states' booming lobster industry. Patrick Ramage is director of marine conservation for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. He said the regulations don't need to be a disaster for the local economy.

"One of the solutions that's on the near horizon is so-called ropeless fishing gear, so there's no permanent buoy line,” Ramage said; “more than a million of which are currently strewn between the right whale's birthing grounds off Florida and Georgia through New England waters and pose a very severe threat to the persistence of this species."

Federal regulators have yet to approve this technology. If and when they do, cost could be prohibitive for some fishermen without government or foundational support. Ramage said his organization is hopeful industry, government and conservationists can work together before it's too late.

The debate between conservationists and Maine lobstering families has been heating up for months, as new regulations would force lobstermen to reduce their lines by 50%. Ramage said ropeless technology is a compromise that could keep Maine's lobstering industry thriving while saving the whales from deadly entanglements.

"There's been some pronounced reaction particularly in Maine,” he said. “The concern is understandable. Ultimately an engagement of fishermen is going to be required if we have any chance of saving this species."

Researchers studying the North Atlantic right whale say between 2003 and 2018, all identified causes of death in the population were linked to human activity.

Jenn Stanley, Public News Service - ME