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Federal officials to close ‘gap’ in protected waters for endangered whales

This is a map that shows the new, wedge-shaped closure for the month of April within the wider closure.

In an effort to protect critically endangered right whales, federal officials have announced an “emergency” closure of an additional area of lobster fishing grounds in federal waters off the South Shore of Massachusetts.

Federal officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) say the closure, which will run from April 1 to April 30, is expected to cause at least 37 vessels to each lose about $2,210 in potential earnings, for a total loss of $82,869.

The loss amounts to “less than one tenth of one percent of the $124 million total estimated 2021 value of the Massachusetts lobster fishery,” federal officials said in an email obtained by CAI.

But Arthur “Sooky” Sawyer, president of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, said individual lobstermen will feel the cut.

“Is it a big percentage of the catch for the year? No. But it's also a percent of people that actually got an opportunity to go out and make a few bucks,” he said. “This was a place for guys … to go and fish fairly close to Gloucester. Now it's all been taken away.”

There’s already a closure in state waters from February to May, but the “wedge-shaped” gap off the South Shore affected by the new closure left the critically endangered species vulnerable, officials and conservationists say. They noted that one of the top threats to the estimated 336 surviving North Atlantic right whales are vertical buoy lines relied on by the lobster fishery.

Conservationist Jane Davenport, senior attorney for the Defenders of Wildlife, said she’s glad federal officials are moving to protect the whales.

“It's fixing a really big gap in the protection for right whales during this really critical time when we know that they're transiting in and out of Cape Cod Bay,” she said.

With the gap left open, she added, “you're diminishing the value of the closure on either side by leaving this gantlet open in the middle.”

“You have to make it more rational by closing off that wedge area so you don’t have a big donut hole in the middle of your protected areas that then decreases the benefit of the closures on either side.”

But Sawyer argued that closing the gap hurts lobstermen more than it protects right whales.

“They've just drawn another line in the ocean where on the other side of that line there’s going to be a whole pile of gear there. “

This one-month closure adds at least an additional 1.6-percent risk reduction, officials say.

“Though this additional reduction seems small, it offers measurable reduction in a relatively small area for a very short time period,“ according to NOAA.

Lobstermen affected by this closure could begin putting gear back in the water by May 1, or, if they’re able, they could fish much farther offshore.