Proposed regs would ban lobstering during right whale migration

In this March 28, 2018 file photo, a North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth, Mass. AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

The Massachusetts lobster industry should find out in late January whether the state will bar lobstering in all state waters from February to May as a protective measure for the imperiled North Atlantic right whales.

The state Division of Marine Fisheries has drafted new protective recommendations that, if approved on Jan. 26 by the state Marine Fisheries Advisory Commission, would prohibit lobstermen in 2021 from setting or hauling traps throughout state waters during the months coinciding with the right whales’ annual migration and feeding though Massachusetts waters.

The proposals also mandate lobstermen use weaker vertical buoy lines designed to break under 1,700 pounds of tension to help mitigate whale entanglements in fishing gear.

The proposed measures are not expected to have an enormous impact on lobstermen fishing out of Cape Ann and the North Shore, where the inshore fleet largely hauls gear in the winter before resetting gear in the later spring.

“I wouldn’t think it would be that big a deal around here,” said Arthur “Sooky” Sawyer, a longtime Gloucester lobsterman and current president of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association. “Mostly it’s the guys down in Nantucket Sound and Buzzards Bay, where the water warms up quicker.”

DMF recently held two public hearings via webinar on the proposed measures and the comments largely fell along the battle lines that often separate the state’s roughly 1,100 permitted lobstermen (about 800 active) and environmental groups.

“Here we have guys who are innocent being put in jail,” said Mike Lane, a Cohasset lobsterman. “You’re targeting the wrong people. I have to be able to run my business. I have to be able to make capital investments and not continue to lose sleep over where my next paycheck is going to come from.”

“This is a big step in the right direction,” said Erica Fuller of the Conservation Law Foundation, adding that state regulators should extend the lobstering ban into January, as well.

Several representatives of environmental groups said the proposed measures also should include a more rapid utilization of ropeless trap technology.

Gib Brogan of Oceana said the weaker buoy lines could benefit adult whales, but “the benefit to juveniles and calves is less so.”

Brogan said regulators should use the introduction of weaker lines “as an opportunity to lay the foundation for future adoption of ropeless technology.”

Industry representatives pushed back, saying the development of a safe and effective inflatable system remains far in the distance. Earlier this year, MLA delegates voted to re-affirm the organization’s stance against a rush to a ropeless fishery.

“To think that this technology is prime-time, off-the-shelf ready is unrealistic,” said Beth Casoni, MLA executive director. “The costs are exorbitant. We’ve heard upward of $150 million to outfit the industry in the first year. And that’s without factoring in any gear loss.”

Researchers and regulators estimate that the population of North Atlantic right whales declined to 366 in 2019. The species has been trending downward since 2010 and 32 deaths have been documented since 2017.

They point to gear entanglements and ship strikes in U.S. and Canadian waters as the primary causes of right whale deaths and injuries.

“These are new strategies to reduce entanglement risks and mortalities,” DMF Director Dan McKiernan said Tuesday. “But obviously, there are enormous implications to any fisherman trying to make a living in the traditional way.”

Massachusetts, whose lobster industry has been among the leaders in trying to develop protections for the right whales that don’t destroy the viability of the fishery, is trying to accomplish several goals with the proposed measures.

It hopes to enhance protections for the right whales and reduce the risk of injuries and death through entanglement and ship strikes.

But it also hopes to bolster its case in several environmental lawsuits against the state, as well as in its application for a special federal permit to license vertical buoy lines in state waters — as ordered last spring by a federal judge in one of the cases.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts and other coastal states await the final proposals from the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, which has been tasked with developing overarching federal protections for the endangered whales.

“We fully expect federal regulators to includes some of our proposals in the final rule,” McKiernan said.

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or shorgan@gloucestertimes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT.

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