Speed restrictions and fishing closures in most of Cape Cod Bay and portions of the Outer Cape have been extended to May 8th to protect lingering North Atlantic right whales.
The trap/pot and fixed gear ban was initially set to expire on April 30th, but a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries said two mother/calf pairs of the critically endangered species were spotted in the Bay over the weekend, which “elevates the need for conservative management.”
“Mothers and calves are critical to the future of right whales,” said Stormy Mayo, director of the Right Whale Ecology Program at Provincetown’s Center for Coastal Studies.
“It’s a very simple arithmetic: the right whales right now are having higher mortalities than they are births, so these calves are immeasurably valuable, and they’re easily run over by boats and entangled in fishing gear because they’re very delicate.”
The Center’s aerial survey team spotted the pairs nursing and a fifth individual feeding near the surface in southern Cape Cod Bay on Saturday.
“[Seeing] this many mothers and calves and another individual is not unusual,” Mayo said. “It’s what we typically see at the end of the season.”
Given their behavior in past years and the amount of zooplankton available in the Bay, these mother/calf pairs aren’t expected to linger long, but the delay does add worries for some.
“It’s like a double whammy,” said Arthur “Sooky” Sawyer, president of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association.
The usually-high demand for lobster at restaurants, in casinos, and on cruise ships has all but disappeared, as the coronavirus has kept diners huddled at home. Now, some fishermen, already concerned about how the coronavirus will drive down the price of their catch, are worried about when they’ll be able to set up their gear.
“If you’re not going to be impacted by one thing, you’re impacted by the other thing, and most people in Cape Cod Bay will be impacted by both things,” Sawyer said.
In a press release, state officials noted the “duration of these restrictions may be shortened or extended based on continuing aerial and vessel-based surveys.”
This isn’t the first year the closure has been extended into May to protect the population of just about 400 whales, so while it’s not a surprise, it still hurts.
“It’s coming at them from both directions,” agreed Mayo. “One can only feel compassion for them. Hopefully the whales will be out of here soon.”
But, he added, it’s crucial to keep Cape Cod Bay closed to lobster fishing until the critically endangered whales have left.
“The issue of right whales is one that most lobstermen understand,” he said. “This species is very close to extinction and the loss of a calf would be an immeasurable disaster.”
The Center hopes to conduct two more aerial surveys this week to monitor the whales’ movement and safe departure from the Bay.
If you observe a right whale entangled in fishing gear while on the water, report it immediately to the Center for Coastal Studies (800-900-3622), the Massachusetts Environmental Police (800-632-8075) or the federal Entanglement Hotline (866-755-6622).