Massachusetts Adopts New Measures to Protect North Atlantic Right Whales from Fishing Gear Entanglements
Oceana Applauds Massachusetts, Calls on Maine and Federal Government to Help Save Critically Endangered Whales from Extinction
Press Release Date: January 28, 2021
BOSTON — Today the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries Advisory Commission approved new measures for its state lobster fishery to better protect North Atlantic right whales from deadly fishing gear entanglements. The new regulations could be active on the water as soon as mid-February, increasing protections for whales entering Massachusetts waters this year, including the 14 new calves spotted this season. North Atlantic right whales are considered critically endangered, with only around 360 remaining.
A cornerstone of the new regulations is expanding fishing closures, which ensure that vertical lines are out of the water when North Atlantic right whales are expected to be in state waters. The regulation also gives the Director of the Division of Marine Fisheries authority to modify closures if the whales depart Massachusetts waters earlier than expected. According to Oceana, closures are the best way to reduce risk of entanglements of North Atlantic right whales. Another facet of the new regulation lays the groundwork to authorize the experimental use of alternative gears—specifically research into ropeless and other new gears without vertical lines. The new measures also require the use of weaker rope that is designed to break under the force of an adult whale, but unfortunately, weak rope can still entangle whales, causing severe injuries and stress. Weak rope does not protect younger, smaller whales who are not large enough to break it.
Oceana senior campaign manager Gib Brogan released this statement in response to the decision:
“Massachusetts got it right for North Atlantic right whales today. When implemented, the new regulations will make Massachusetts waters a safer destination for North Atlantic right whales, which will be traveling north with their calves in the coming months. By reducing the risk of entanglement in fishing gear, which is a leading cause of death for this species, Massachusetts set its lobster industry apart today, and showed itself as a leader in ocean conservation and responsible lobster fishing. Maine and the federal government should take note of Massachusetts’ leadership and implement additional measures to prevent fishing gear entanglements in state and federal waters before North Atlantic right whales are gone forever.”
Background on today’s action:
Under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), any state with a fishery that entangles or harms protected species, like the North Atlantic right whale, must get a federal permit for these interactions. To obtain a permit, the state must submit a conservation plan to the federal government to demonstrate that certain measures are being taken to eliminate or reduce risk of entanglements. New England state-managed lobster fisheries had been operating without these permits, but a lawsuit ruling in April of last year declared that the Massachusetts lobster fishery had to secure an ESA permit to continue fishing. A federal judge determined that the state’s previous measures were not enough to save the endangered animals. In response, in November, Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries proposed additional actions to protect these whales from entanglement in fishing gear. After an open comment period soliciting feedback that drew more than 2,000 comments, Massachusetts Marine Fisheries Advisory Commission approved the majority of these proposed measures.
Background on North Atlantic right whales:
North Atlantic right whales were named for being the “right” whale to hunt because they were often found near shore, swim slowly and tend to float when killed. They were aggressively hunted, and their population dropped from peak estimates of up to 21,000 to perhaps fewer than 100 by the 1920s. After whaling of North Atlantic right whales was banned in 1935, their population increased to as many as 483 individuals in 2010. Unfortunately, that progress has been reversed.
Entanglement in fishing gear used to catch lobster, snow crab and bottom-dwelling fish like halibut, flounder and cod is one of two leading causes of North Atlantic right whale deaths. Fishing gear from the U.S. and Canada entangles an estimated 100 North Atlantic right whales each year, and about 83% of all North Atlantic right whales have been entangled at least once. Ropes have been seen wrapped around North Atlantic right whales’ mouths, fins, tails and bodies, which slows them down, making it difficult to swim, reproduce and feed, and can kill them. The lines cut into the whales’ flesh, leading to life-threatening infections, and are so strong that they can sever fins and tails and cut into bone.
Collisions with vessels is the other leading cause of North Atlantic right whale injury and death. North Atlantic right whales are slow, swimming around 6 miles per hour, usually near the water’s surface. They are also dark in color and lack a dorsal fin, making them very difficult to spot. Studies have found that the speed of a vessel is a major factor in collisions with North Atlantic right whales. At normal operating speeds, many vessels cannot maneuver to avoid them, and North Atlantic right whales swim too slowly to be able to move out of the way. This puts them at great risk of being struck, which can cause deadly injuries from blunt-force trauma or cuts from propellers.
To learn more about Oceana’s campaign to save North Atlantic right whales from extinction, please click here.
Oceana is the largest international advocacy organization dedicated solely to ocean conservation. Oceana is rebuilding abundant and biodiverse oceans by winning science-based policies in countries that control one-third of the world’s wild fish catch. With more than 225 victories that stop overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution, and the killing of threatened species like turtles and sharks, Oceana’s campaigns are delivering results. A restored ocean means that 1 billion people can enjoy a healthy seafood meal, every day, forever. Together, we can save the oceans and help feed the world. Visit www.USA.Oceana.org to learn more.