BOSTON – New federal regulations that require use of different fishing gear to protect the endangered northern right whale fail to address the real culprit in the death of most of the whales, fishermen say.
The regulations approved Thursday by National Marine Fisheries Service require lobster and gill-net fishermen to use equipment designed to break away under a certain pressure so right whales do not get entangled in fishing lines, a potentially lethal situation.
But most right whales are killed in collisions with ships, said Bill Adler, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association.
“Fishing gear is by no means the major source of right whale deaths, but it is easier to attack the fishing industry than the shipping industry, and we got hung,” said Adler, who was on the team that came up with the new regulations.
As many as 60 percent of the approximately 300 living northern right whales have scars from fishing line entanglements, said Mason Weinrich, executive director and chief scientist at the New England Whale Center in Gloucester. “I think it is a real problem,” he said.
Authorities are working with the shipping industry to reduce collisions, said George Liles, a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Fishermen are often the first to report distressed whales, said Richard Burgess, chairman of the Gulf of Maine Fishermen’s Alliance.
“I think they are barking up the wrong tree by going after fishermen,” said Burgess, who has been using gill nets – large nets placed on the ocean floor to trap fish – for 25 years.
The lobster industry, with about 1,100 active fishermen, can live with the new regulations because new equipment is not expected to cost much and the rules should have little or no effect on the harvest of the lucrative crustacean, valued at $59.4 million in the state last year, Adler said.
But it could cost gill-netters “tens of thousands of dollars” in new or refurbished gear, Burgess said.
The new regulations are “binding” and comply with federal law, Liles said. They are the result of two years of talks among fishermen, gear manufacturers, conservationists and researchers, and are to take effect Jan. 21.
They require the use of weak, knotless links that connect the lobster buoy to the line that will break under 600 pounds of pressure, and weak links on gill-net float lines that break at 1,100 pounds; a color-coded system for buoy lines in most lobster traps to help track where right whales become entangled; stringing multiple lobster pots between two buoys to reduce the number of vertical lines.
“These gear changes should result in fewer injuries and entanglements among large whales,” said NOAA’s Chris Mantzaris.
The northern right whale is considered the world’s most endangered large whale with only about 300 left, Weinrich said. They migrate up and down the East Coast of the United States and Canada but are concentrated between Long Island Sound and Nova Scotia, he said. The population has declined about 2 percent a year in the past decade, he said.