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Lobstermen Raise Concerns Over Proposed Regulations to Protect Endangered Whales

The state is asking for public feedback on new rules to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales from entanglement in fishing gear. 

At a public hearing on Tuesday, the Massachusetts Department of Marine Fisheries (DMF) shared its recommendations to extend a seasonal commercial-gear closure to areas north and east of the Cape from February 1 through April 30. 

Dan McKiernan, DMF director, also explained new requirements for vertical buoy lines that would mandate that they break apart when exposed to 1,700 pounds of pressure. 

“A recent study by the New England Aquarium on whale entanglement showed ropes with low breaking strength can reduce serious injury and mortality by at least 72 percent,” he said.  “Cooperative research with commercial lobsterman has demonstrated that ropes of these breaking strength are strong enough in most cases to allow for the successful hauling of lobster gear.

“In essence,” he said, “this research and proposal tried to hit the sweet spot for a line that is safe for the industry and beneficial for right whales.” 

A recent study by the National Marine Fisheries Service estimated that the North Atlantic right whale population had dwindled to 366 animals as of January 2019. In the last few decades, much of the population has been wiped out by entanglement in rope and fishing lines, and through collisions with boats and ships. 

In recent years, the fight to protect the whales has ratcheted up, with conservationists and fishermen sometimes butting heads. 

“I’m just trying to plan for the future of fisheries. I mean, if we have a closure this will really close down the state to any type of income,” said Mike Lane, a fisherman who asked whether the state would require modifications to other kinds of fishing gear.  “I’m just trying to figure out what else we can do when we take the traps in to put something in our pockets.” 

Officials were unable to provide an economic impact report based on these recommendations, but reported that around 800 lobstermen could be affected if the rules are approved, which could be as soon as this May.  

The state is also calling to extend the existing January 1 to May 15 gillnet closure in Cape Cod Bay to include more northern waters, off Scituate, and to shorten the recreational lobster season to run from the Tuesday following Columbus Day through the Friday preceding Memorial Day. 

Among the more controversial recommendations was one to prohibit the use of single lobster traps onboard boats with an overall length of 29 feet or greater. Boats longer than that would be required to configure their traps as multi-trap trawls.

“I mean, there’s gonna be a lot of guys that -- if they have to put more than one trap on a buoy— they’re going to be out of business,” said Garrett Loparto, an outer Cape fisherman. “I’m speaking for everybody out of Nauset inlet right now, and that’s unacceptable — like half the outer Cape lobstermen or more I’m speaking for.” 

Loparto said he recently built his business out of a 33-foot boat. ”My business is totally, solely built to fish single traps. … It shouldn’t matter one bit whether you’re hauling single traps out of a 23-footer or out of a 43-footer,” he said. “It shouldn’t matter.” 

A second public hearing will be held over zoom at 6 p.m. today, and the comment period will remain open until next Friday.  All comments can be submitted to McKiernan via email at marine.fish@mass.gov or by post to the attention of Director McKiernan at 251 Causeway Street, Suite 400, Boston, MA 02114. 

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