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Speed, fishing restrictions extended in Cape Cod Bay so right whale calves can safely feed

A mother and calf swim side by side off the shores of Duxbury Beach in 2015.
A mother and calf swim side by side off the shores of Duxbury Beach in 2015.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Seasonal fishing restrictions and speed limits in most of Cape Cod Bay have been extended to protect North Atlantic right whale calves that are feeding in the area, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries said Monday.

Fishermen cannot set any commercial or recreational fixed gear in most sections of Cape Cod Bay until May 7. Gear is also prohibited in waters north of Cape Cod on Stellwagen Bank until May 8, officials said.

Fixed gear closure extension area in Cape Cod Bay.
Fixed gear closure extension area in Cape Cod Bay. Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries

Vessels smaller than 65 feet long must move slower than 10 knots while traveling through the bay until May 7. Vessels that are 65 feet long or larger must obey this limit until May 15

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Law enforcement and emergency workers who are traveling through the bay on official duties, and small vessels operating in the Barnstable, Wellfleet, Kingston, Duxbury, or Plymouth harbors, are exempt from this rule.

Small vessel extended speed restriction areas in Cape Cod Bay.
Small vessel extended speed restriction areas in Cape Cod Bay. Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries

The restrictions were extended to protect young whales and their mothers from getting entangled in fishing gear or struck by passing vessels while they feed on zooplankton in the area.

The Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies spotted five right whales, including two pairs of mothers with their calves, swimming near the surface of southern Cape Cod Bay during an aerial survey Saturday, officials said.

Mothers are typically seen with their calves in Cape Cod Bay during late April and early May after most adult whales have already moved into feeding grounds near Maine and Canada, officials said. The first mother and calf in the bay this year were seen April 12 off Race Point in Provincetown.

Mothers don’t usually stay in Cape Cod Bay with their calves for long and are known to swim to unpredictable places, officials said. Fishing and speed restrictions could change after researchers reassess the number of whales in the bay during upcoming aerial surveys, officials said.

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“The presence of these mother/calf pairs elevates the need for conservative management,” officials said in a statement. "Right whales are critically endangered species and their population has been decreasing since 2010 due to continued mortality and low birth rates.”

Ten new North Atlantic right whale calves have been born this year, officials said. While this may be a slight increase from birthing rates in previous years, new research shows North Atlantic right whales number only around 400 and are suffering far more than right whales in other parts of the world.

Officials said more than 60 percent of the known North Atlantic right whale population has been spotted off of Massachusetts during late winter and early spring in recent years.

Caroline Enos can be reached at caroline.enos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @CarolineEnos.