The effort to protect endangered whales is taking federal officials on a listening tour from Maine, to Rhode Island, and Wednesday night, to Bourne, where nearly 200 people gathered in a high school cafeteria.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) is soliciting the opinions of Massachusetts lobstermen, environmental advocates and other stakeholders before proposing new regulations on the fishing industry.
The goal is to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales, which are increasingly dying from entanglement in rope and commercial fishing gear -- without putting fishermen out of business.
There are only about 400 endangered North Atlantic right whales left on Earth. Since 1980, nearly 1500 have died from entanglements.
“Line entangling right whales can saw into their head and into their nostrils, or their blowhole causing painful wounds that impact their ability to breathe,” said Sarah Sharp, a veterinarian with the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “As a veterinarian, I can honestly say that while these ways that they’re dying are completely unintentional, these are some of the worst injuries I’ve seen in my career.”
At the meeting, whale advocates like Sharp called for major changes to the fishing industry to avoid extinction, but lobstermen voiced concerns about the operational challenges, time, and costs that would come with modifying their gear.
Many reiterated that adding more closures, introducing weak ropes, or reducing the number of traps per trawl, for example, could be costly, and even dangerous.
For lobstermen like Tom O’Reilly, federal limits on fishing grounds in Massachusetts waters to protect the whales have already taken a heavy toll.
“I can’t stress enough that the closure that we have—how much it hurts our families financially,” he said.
Sharp says while she respects how much lobstermen have already done to protect these whales, eight have died in Canadian waters this summer alone, so changes need to happen before it’s too late.
“Certainly I commend them in what they have done, but the unfortunate part of this story is it just hasn’t been enough,” she said. “Entanglement deaths in right whales and rates of entanglement have been on the rise in recent years.”
But Beth Casoni executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen Association, said all of this year’s deaths of North Atlantic right whales have been in Canada. Why should US lobstermen pay the price?
“When the North Atlantic right whales left Cape Cod Bay this spring they were very well fed and very much alive until they arrived in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. And now eight more are dead,” Casoni said. “How is the US commercial lobster fishery ever supposed to reach the end zone when it is truly unattainable? Enough is enough.”
Despite differences in opinion over how to save these whales, the crowd agreed: no one wants to see them dead.
“I just want everyone to know that [lobstermen] don’t want to see the whales disappear.” Tom O’Reilly said. “We work very hard at trying to save them.”
Officials say they’ll consider feedback from stakeholders across the region before recommending any changes.