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Federal regulations to protect right whales are delayed

A North Atlantic right whale swam in the waters of Cape Cod Bay near Provincetown.
A North Atlantic right whale swam in the waters of Cape Cod Bay near Provincetown.DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images

After months of pressure from the fishing industry, federal regulators on Wednesday acknowledged that long-awaited regulations to protect North Atlantic right whales will be delayed until at least this summer.

Officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is responsible for protecting the critically endangered species, had planned to issue the regulations last year. But they were delayed after months of criticism from the region’s powerful lobster industry, which is worried that new requirements could be harsh and expensive.

In a filing in federal court in Washington, D.C., where environmental advocates have sued NOAA for allegedly failing to protect the whales, agency lawyers wrote that they needed more time, calling their work a “complex administrative process.”

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They blamed the delay on Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, each of which had been asked to submit their own proposals to NOAA.

“Unfortunately, the state measures have taken more time to be developed than we expected,” the lawyers wrote.

Groups representing lobstermen in Maine and Massachusetts could not be reached for comment.

NOAA has been considering measures, which were recommended last year by its Atlantic Whale Take Reduction Team, to require lobstermen throughout much of the Gulf of Maine to reduce their buoy lines by half.

In recent years, entanglements from those lines, which stretch from the surface to traps on the seafloor, have been the leading cause of death and serious injuries for right whales.

With only about 400 right whales left in the world, and their population declining by 20 percent over the past decade, environmental advocates criticized the agency for slow-walking the regulations.

“This latest delay from the National Marine Fisheries Service is dangerous for the remaining North Atlantic right whales,” said Gib Brogan, a fisheries policy analyst for Oceana, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.

He called on the agency to issue interim measures to protect the whales, noting that just this week another right whale was reported entangled off Nantucket.

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“The government has repeatedly stated that the risk of entanglement with fishing gear is too high,” Brogan said. “This new timeline means that these whales will be at risk for the remainder of 2020, and likely into future years before the rule-making is complete.”

Michael Jasny, director of the marine mammal protection project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, compared the agency’s action to “Nero fiddling while Rome burns.”

“This new delay means we won’t even see a proposal for protective measures until July, and given the reluctance of agencies to act within a few months of an election, I wouldn’t put money even on that,” he said. “But right whales don’t have the luxury of bureaucratic time ... the agency’s lack of courage to face the entanglement problem is nothing short of sickening.”

David Abel’s reporting on right whales was made possible with the support of the Pulitzer Center, as part of its nationwide Connected Coastlines reporting initiative.


David Abel can be reached at david.abel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.