April 06, 2020

Protective whale rules in the works > No increased restrictions expected in final plan

Federal authorities are aiming by month’s end to make final a four-year plan intended to provide greater protection to endangered northern right whales and three other whale species as they migrate north through the Gulf of Maine this spring.

Doug Beach, a marine biologist at National Marine Fisheries Service, heads the federal agency’s team of scientists, which is drafting the final plan. A set of interim rules have been in effect since mid-July.

Beach says he does not expect the final plan to be more restrictive in light of the four entanglements of right whales in fishing gear off Cape Cod and in the Bay of Fundy last year. He says Maine lobstermen and gill netters will have the same “menu” of gear modifications from which to choose depending on where their traps or nets are set. He says fishermen who work in near-coastal waters, where right whales are rarely seen, will be largely unaffected.

“I don’t see a lot of changes because mainly we want to see what effect the measures already in place will have,” Beach said recently from NMFS headquarters in Gloucester, Mass.

Right whales get their name because they were the “right” species to hunt. The giant mammals boast an exceptionally thick layer of blubber that yields a large amount of oil. They also float to the surface when killed, unlike other whales.

In pre-whaling days, right whales numbered about 300,000. Only 300 now remain in the North Atlantic, about 4,000 off South America. Because of their buoyancy, the slow-swimming creatures are especially vulnerable to ships and fishing gear.

Since 1991, only one right whale is known to have been killed from entanglement in fishing gear in U.S. waters, while eight have died from ship strikes. Only one is known to have been entangled in Maine waters and it was released unharmed.

NMFS, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Commerce Department, is mandated by the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act to ensure the safe passage of right, minke, finback and humpback whales along the Eastern Seaboard.

Last spring, NMFS officials unveiled an initial set of rules designed to prevent whales from getting entangled in lobster and gill-net fishing gear in New England waters. The proposed regulations caused a furor at public hearings in Maine where more than 2,000 fishermen, families, state officials, lawmakers and residents testified the plan would destroy Maine’s lobster industry.

After the stormy hearings, the Maine Department of Marine Resources stepped forward and proposed an alternative plan to federal regulators. Many of its elements were incorporated into the interim rules. For instance, they distinguish between different fishing areas where right whales are likely to swim and calls for an entanglement response program involving fishermen.

Penn Estabrook, acting Maine marine resources commissioner, does not expect the final plan will differ significantly from the interim measures already in place. “I think it will go substantially where we wanted it to go,” he predicted recently.

Maine already has taken steps to comply. The state persuaded federal regulators to hire a whale response coordinator who is working closely with Maine lobstermen and gill netters to develop gear less hazardous to whales. He also is setting up a voluntary system in which the fishermen will learn what steps to take when they spot an entangled whale.

Glenn Salvador, a former DMR staffer and Massachusetts commercial fisherman, was hired as the whale coordinator late last fall. Much of his time has been spent meeting with members of Maine’s seven lobster management zone councils governed by fishermen. He has produced a video helping people to identify different species of whales.

Maine naturalist Bob Bowman, who has studied whales in the North Atlantic since the mid-1970s, will collaborate with Salvador. He recently was hired by the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Mass. — the group federally authorized to disentangle whales — as its first responder in the Gulf of Maine. He, too, will work with fishermen.

Scott Kraus, the New England Aquarium’s right whale expert and a College of the Atlantic graduate, says fishermen’s cooperation is key to protecting right whales. He said gear modifications tailored to the region work best because lobstermen fish differently throughout New England.

“The best thing to come out of all this is everyone’s been sensitized to the problem,” Kraus said last week.

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