Saturday marked the end of lobster fishing and the beginning of relative safety for critically endangered right whales in Cape Cod Bay.
From Feb. 1 to April 30, no trap/pot gear or vertical lines are allowed in an area of over 3,000 square miles to protect North Atlantic right whales whose population has dwindled to around 400.
The owners of trap gear may be subject to gear seizure, fines, permit sanctions and removal, if any gear is found in the area during the closure.
Conservationists and scientists have lauded the closures since they began in 2015, noting entanglement in rope is the leading cause of death for the whales.
“Already, our survey plane is circling over right whales down in the southern part of Cape Cod Bay,” said Scott Landry, director of the entanglement program at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown. “If we all want to reduce the number of entanglements, then the one option that we have is to remove or reduce rope…. [It’s] the only surefire method.”
As much as 65% of the population has been seen feeding in the Bay in past winters.
While conservationists describe the Large Whale Seasonal Trap Gear Closure as necessary to help the population recover, many lobstermen have criticized the effort for its economic impact on the industry.
“It means everyone has to get out of the pool,” said Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association. “All the gear has to come home. There’s no vertical lines; there’s no fishing. And it means that the fishermen lose five months of potential earnings,” referring to the additional time it takes to get gear in and out of the water.
The Association is currently assessing the economic impact of the closures on 250-300 lobstermen and shoreside businesses.
“I don’t know too many people that could take five months off of work with no income,” Casoni said, later adding, “frustrating is an understatement.”
In 2019, the closure was extended into mid-May when the whales remained aggregated longer than expected. Casoni says she’s “anxious” that could happen again this year, adding that Massachusetts has had some of the strictest regulations on lobstermen worldwide. She points to Canadian fisheries, where there are fewer regulations, and unanswered questions about accountability.
“You could take every vertical line out…. and the lobster industry [in the U.S.] would still be persecuted because of Canada,” she said.
Landry says he and other conservationists are sensitive to the impact on lobstermen, and adds he’s not asking for a reduction in fishing, but in rope.
Stakeholders are working on developing weak-rope and even ropeless fishing techniques, but until those technologies are ready, both sides say they’ll be relieved when the whales safely vacate the area in late spring.