In a major step to protect North Atlantic right whales, state officials are poised to ban lobster fishing in all Massachusetts waters during periods when the critically endangered species typically feeds in the region.
The proposed restrictions, which could be devastating for hundreds of fixed-gear fishermen from Buzzards Bay to Ipswich Bay, would prevent commercial lobstermen from setting their traps between February and May and potentially longer if whales remain offshore. They would also require the state’s 800 lobstermen to use special rope that breaks more easily under pressure from whales, limit the state’s recreational lobster catch, and curtail the use of vertical mesh lines known as gillnets.
State officials said the rules, which were proposed this month after scientists estimated that only about 356 right whales remain, are likely to take effect as soon as February, after a public comment period.
“The draft regulations are designed to reduce the risk of endangered whales becoming entangled in fixed fishing gear,” said Dan McKiernan, director of the Division of Marine Fisheries who noted during recent online hearings that 32 right whales have died and another 14 have sustained life-threatening injuries since 2017.
Scientists say that even one unnatural death a year could result in the species’ extinction within the next 20 years.
Over the past decade, the population of right whales has plummeted by more than a quarter, and millions of vertical buoy lines used in the Gulf of Maine have been the leading cause of death. With Massachusetts waters often attracting more right whales than anywhere else, environmental groups have lobbied for tighter restrictions on lobster fishing and successfully challenged state policy in court.
Between 2010 and 2019, 43 right whales along the East Coast and in Canadian waters were found to have died as a result of entanglements from the lines that extend from buoys at the surface to traps on the seafloor, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. By contrast, 14 are known to have died as a result of vessel strikes.
Scientists say that nearly 85 percent of right whales have been scarred by entanglements, and many of those that survive are often weakened, making them less likely to reproduce. Over the past three breeding seasons, only 22 calves were born, about a third below the rate needed to sustain the population. Two of those calves have since died.
With the decline of the population accelerating, federal officials last year convened a group of federal and state regulators, scientists, fishermen, and environmental advocates to reduce the risk of right whale death and serious injuries by at least 60 percent. The group, known as the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, recommended states come up with their own plan to protect the whales.
While the National Marine Fisheries Service has repeatedly delayed releasing its own plan to protect the whales, Massachusetts has been forced to act by a federal judge’s ruling in the spring that found the state was violating the Endangered Species Act by licensing lobstermen to use vertical lines.
“The uncontroverted evidence demonstrates that right whales are being pushed towards extinction, and that, without intervention, continued entanglements will hasten the end of this species,” US District Judge Indira Talwani wrote in her ruling, which required Massachusetts to seek a special federal permit to license buoy lines.
At the recent hearings, McKiernan said the state’s plan is part of an effort to obtain that permit. “The rationale is to reduce the potential for any entanglements in the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth,” he said.
But Massachusetts lobstermen say regulators have rarely found their gear to be a source of entanglement, though it has been exceedingly rare for such gear to be identified. Scientists at the New England Aquarium who reviewed more than a thousand entanglements between 2001 and 2016 found less than 1 percent could be attributed to a specific location.
“Entanglements occur everywhere there is fishing gear,” wrote Scott Kraus, the former chief scientist of marine mammals at the aquarium, in a letter last year defending federal regulations to members of Congress
The state’s lobstermen also contend they have faced more restrictions than those who fish farther north. Lobstermen who set traps in Cape Cod Bay and nearby waters, where right whales often feed, have already been required to remove their gear for at least three months every year.
For Mike Lane, who fishes out of Cohasset, the prospect of losing several months of fishing a year is like “being put in jail,” he told McKiernan at a recent hearing.
“You’re affecting real families with these closures,” said Lane, 45, who recently spent $18,000 for a new transmission for his boat and now must spend about $100,000 for a new engine. “We have bills like the rest of you. … It just seems a shame to me that we keep getting our knees taken out from underneath us.”
Lane and other lobstermen said a three-month closure could put them out of business. The restriction would effectively amount to a five-month ban, they said, since it would take weeks to remove their 800 traps and weeks more to reset them again.
John Haviland, president of the South Shore Lobster Fishermen’s Association, said many of his members were livid at the prospect of new closures and the other proposed requirements.
“When it comes home and hits you in the pocketbook, you want to throw your hat and start kicking dirt,” said Haviland, who fishes out of Marshfield.
But environmental advocates who have been pushing for more state and federal action to protect the whales said drastic action was necessary.
“These proposed regulations are a big step in the right direction,” said Erica Fuller, a senior attorney at the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation, one of several groups that has sued the Fisheries Service to protect the whales. “But in light of the fact that Massachusetts waters have the highest known seasonal density of right whales in the world, a long-term solution that allows fishing and right whales to coexist is imperative.”
She and others urged the state to consider changing its rules to allow lobstermen to use ropeless fishing systems, which enable traps to surface with inflatable devices rather than buoy lines.
Moving to ropeless fishing would have “a far more lasting impact in reducing mortality, and equally importantly, the health and hence reproductive success of live animals,” said Michael Moore, director of the Marine Mammal Center at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
McKiernan said there remain significant technical and economic hurdles to such systems, but he said the state would consider permitting them in future regulations. Federal regulators are also considering opening some federal waters to ropeless fishing as well.
Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobsterman’s Association, said her members recently debated the merits of the technology and voted against it.
“The numbers don’t add up,” she said at a recent hearing. “It’s unrealistic to call this [ready for] prime time.”
But proponents and those who have tested the technology say ropeless systems have made significant advances and would be far more feasible if the federal government offered subsidies to offset the costs to fishermen.
“With the stakes so high, I think we all hoped for something more creative” from state regulators, said Patrick Ramage, a senior director at the International Fund for Animal Welfare on Cape Cod. “Rather than disparaging this technology, shutting things down, and defending business as usual, DMF officials should be helping our lobstermen develop and deploy it.”