Massachusetts officials plan lobster-fishing bans to protect right whales

Officials in the U.S. state of Massachusetts are proposing a complete ban on lobster fishing in all state waters during periods when the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale is in the region.

The new regulations would prevent lobstermen from setting traps between February and May – and potentially longer if the whales remain offshore, according to The Boston Globe. The regulations would also require lobstermen to use more easily breakable rope, limit the state’s lobster catch, and curtail the use of gillnets in state waters.

The proposal is the latest escalation in efforts to protect the North Atlantic right whale, which is one of the most endangered species on the planet. Current estimates put the total population of the species at roughly 356, with dozens of whales dying in recent years from entanglement-related causes.

Nonprofits have repeatedly urged action by the federal government, calling for greater efforts to protect right whales. In April, a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Conservation Law Foundation, and several other conservation groups found that the American lobster fishery is in violation of the Endangered Species Act, a ruling that later led to the Maine lobster fishery – America’s largest lobster fishery by value and volume – to have its Marine Stewardship Council certification suspended.

The latest proposal in Massachusetts is related to the lack of federal action, officials say. The recent federal ruling required that Massachusetts seek special federal permits to license buoy lines, and the new plan does that, according to Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries Director Dan McKiernan, part of that process.

“The rationale is to reduce the potential for any entanglements in the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth [of Massachusetts],” he said during recent online hearings.

Meanwhile, conservation organizations continue to push the federal government to put more effort into protecting right whales. More than 55 organizations urged congressional leaders in a letter to provide USD 100 million (EUR 82.2 million) in emergency funding to help protect the species. The letter asked that a “substantial portion” of the funding be used to ramp up the deployment of ropeless gear technology, in order to prevent the vertical-line entanglements that pose risks to the whales.

“After decades of half-measures and constant underfunding, the right whale population has reached crisis status,” Center for Biological Diversity Senior Policy Specialist Stephanie Kurose said in a press release. “Without substantial funding to back the move to safer fishing gear, these iconic whales will likely go extinct in the very near future.”

The letter coincided with a petition sent to the National Marine Fisheries Service calling for gear bans in order to protect right whales.

“Congress’s lack of urgency and political will to address the extinction crisis and get serious about saving these beautiful whales is heartbreaking,” Kurose said. “Now more than ever, we need our leaders to take bold, meaningful action before it’s too late.” 

Photo courtesy of NOAA


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