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Right Whale Conservation Groups ‘Disappointed’ By Long-Awaited Lobster Fishing Rules

New (green) and Existing (blue) Restricted Areas.
NOAA Fisheries
New (green) and Existing (blue) Restricted Areas.

Federal officials have issued new regulations for the lobster and Jonah crab fisheries that are designed to protect North Atlantic right whales from entanglements in gear. But conservationists say the long-awaited rules don’t go far enough to save the critically endangered species.

The new regulations from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) require lobstermen to add more traps per buoy line to reduce the number of vertical ropes in the water. They also restrict buoy lines in certain areas during seasonal whale migration south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket and in the Gulf of Maine.

In addition, they require fishermen to make two significant changes to the ropes themselves: adding breakaway sections so that entangled whales can more easily break free, and markings to buoy lines to enable federal officials to differentiate gear by state.

Federal officials say the rules, which are four years in the making, will reduce the whales’ risk of death and serious injury by 69% — and more protections will be phased in over the next decade as part of a conservation framework.

But conservation groups say they wanted more aggressive measures, given the current status of the critically endangered whales. The population of North Atlantic right whales has declined sharply over the last few decades, and today an estimated 360 remain.

“Earlier this year, [New England] Aquarium scientists urged [NOAA] to reduce the risk of serious injury and death of right whales in the Northeast crab and lobster trap/pot fisheries by at least 80% rather than the 69% outlined in the final rule to amend the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan,” an Aquarium spokesperson said in a statement released after the rules came out.

“[The right whale population numbers] are going downward and we don’t have a whole lot of room with right whales to make mistakes,” said Gib Brogan, a senior campaign manager with marine conservation group Oceana. “We need things that we know are going to work.”

To Brogan, the length of the local closure is particularly concerning.

“The area south of the islands is core habitat year-round for right whales. The restricted area is scheduled to be February through April. And this should be a year-round closure to provide protection for the whales,” he said.

Another line of criticism falls around the “weak” ropes; fishermen will be required to “incorporate rope engineered to break at no more than 1,700 pounds, or weak insertion configurations that break at no more than 1,700 pounds,” according to the plan.

“We are skeptical of the use of weak rope,” Brogan said. “This will allow the entanglements to continue. The stressful events will continue for the whales. And we know that the stress is causing smaller body size at age and causing a longer interval in reproduction.”

The Maine Lobstermen's Association (MLA) was also critical of the new rules, saying that, in fact, the federal government has placed an "unwarranted burden" on the fishery.

"[The National Marine Fisheries Service] has mandated that Maine lobstermen reduce risk to right whales by an additional 98% over the next 10 years based on the worst-case scenario instead of using best available data and realistic assumptions,” said Maine Lobstermen's Association executive director Patrice McCarron, “The final rule is just the first round of economic impacts to us, and future restrictions will likely destroy Maine’s iconic lobster fishery.”

The MLA takes issue with the size of the seasonal restricted area in the Gulf of Maine, a lack of "flexibility" for lobstermen to "innovate and propose equally protective yet less costly approaches," and "last minute changes" to the gear marking requirements that they say could require lobstermen to purchase a second set of buoy lines.

A representative for the Massachusetts Lobstermen's Association also expressed doubts.

“The Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association is review[ing] the newly released regulations and is working with the industry to ease any concerns they may have," said executive director Beth Casoni in a statement. "We are deeply concerned about the new closure in Southern New England as the size and timing of it will greatly impact our fleet negatively.”

Controversially, the rules do create incentives for fishermen to experiment with ropeless fishing technology by changing restricted ocean areas from “no fishing” areas to areas that prohibit persistent vertical lines.

“There will be a benefit for [early] adopters to go out, get the gear, and get it on the water,” Brogan said. “[They’ll have] exclusive access to these areas.”

But many conservationists say not enough is being done to encourage the change, and the technology itself, which has drawn the ire of many lobstermen, is cost-prohibitive and still in development.

The seasonal closure regulations will take effect in the next 30 days, and the new gear modifications will go into effect in May 2022.

Representatives with the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association did not provide a comment at the time of publishing.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.