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Lobstermen Banned from Most MA Waters Until Late Spring to Protect Endangered Whales

The state’s Marine Fisheries Commission approved the latest suite of protections for North Atlantic right whales on Thursday, including a three-and-a-half month trap gear closure throughout a large swath of state waters and mandated use of weaker buoy lines.


Already, from Feb. 1 to April 30, no trap pot gear or vertical lines are allowed in an area of over 3,000 square miles around Cape Cod Bay. The new rules from the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries Advisory Commission extend and expand the closure up to the New Hampshire border until May 15. 


The commission exempted state waters south and southwest of the Cape. Whale survey records showed North Atlantic right whales are rarely seen in that area around Nantucket Sound during the proposed closure period.


The commission, made up mostly of commercial fishermen, voted overwhelmingly in support of the new restrictions because the state’s lobster industry is currently under threat from a federal judge, who could close the fishery outright for failing to protect the whales under the Endangered Species Act. 


Establishing new closures could make it easier for the state to obtain a so-called incidental take permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service to allow lobstermen to continue using buoy lines.


“There’s a lot of heartburn, as you can imagine,” said Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association. “But we know the state’s in a tough position and they have to work towards more conservation… We’re optimistic toward getting that incidental take permit.” 


The state Division of Marine Fisheries estimated that the new measures will reduce gear entanglements in state waters by 76 percent. Entanglement in rope and fishing gear is a leading cause of death for the critically endangered species, with population numbers dwindling to around 360. As much as 65 percent of the population has been seen feeding in Cape Cod Bay in past winters.


“This will significantly reduce the risk of right whale entanglements in Massachusetts waters and make those waters much safer for right whales when they get here in the coming weeks,” said Gib Brogan, a senior campaign manager with the conservation group Oceana. 


The new rules also lay the regulatory groundwork to experiment with technology called ropeless fishing gear and mandate that fishermen use weaker rope that’s designed to break under the force of an adult whale. The state closed an area off Scituate to gillnet fishing, as well. 


The regulation gives the director of the Division of Marine Fisheries authority to modify closures and reopen portions of state waters if the whales depart Massachusetts waters any time after April 30.

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