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After years of delay, federal regulators issue sweeping fishing rules to protect right whales

Two and half years after calling for urgent action to protect North Atlantic right whales, federal regulators on Tuesday issued sweeping rules that seek to reduce their entanglement in fishing gear, among the leading cause of death and serious injuries to the critically endangered species.Michael Dwyer/AP/file

Two and half years after calling for urgent action to protect North Atlantic right whales, federal regulators on Tuesday issued sweeping rules that seek to reduce their entanglement in fishing gear, among the leading cause of death and serious injuries to the critically endangered species.

The controversial rules, which advocates for the whales say don’t go far enough and come too late, aim to reduce the risk of death and serious injuries from entanglements by 69 percent, they said. The population of right whales has declined by a quarter over the past decade, with fewer than 400 left.


But they come with a significant cost for many fishermen, many of whom consider the rules unfairly onerous. Regulators estimate they will cost the fishing industry as much as $20 million in the first year and up to $91 million after six years, accounting for implementation and a diminished catch.

“The new measures in this rule will allow the lobster and Jonah crab fisheries to continue to thrive, while significantly reducing the risk to critically endangered right whales,” said Michael Pentony, regional administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in New England.

The rules will require reductions in the number of vertical lines that lobstermen and Jonah crab fishermen use to connect their traps on the seafloor to buoys at the surface. Those reductions will come as a result of new fishing closures and requirements that fishermen connect more of their traps to each other on the bottom with trawl lines.

The rules also require fishermen to use weaker rope designed to break when whales become entangled, and mark their lines to help regulators identify where entanglements are occurring and with what gear.

Some wildlife advocates threatened to sue the federal government, arguing that much more needs to be done to protect the whales. They note that regulators have estimated that 85 percent of right whales have been entangled in fishing gear, most of them more than once.


“While this rule is a step in the right direction, it does not go far enough or fast enough to stop the precipitous decline of this species,” said Erica Fuller, a senior attorney at the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation, which won a previous lawsuit that required the federal government to enact rules to reduce entanglements. “We plan to challenge the new rule in court to ensure that right whales recover rather than become an extinction statistic. That means reducing the risk of serious injuries and deaths by at least 80 percent — immediately, not fiddling while Rome burns.”

Last fall, scientists estimated there were just 356 right whales left, a stark decline from when there were nearly 500 a decade ago. Their concerns mounted in 2017, when 17 right whales were found dead — 12 of them in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence. The whales began migrating there in recent years as their primary food source during the summer months declined in the Gulf of Maine, which has been warming more rapidly than nearly any other body of water on the planet.

Even more concerning, in 2018, no new calves were born, which was unprecedented and considered a harbinger of a species in collapse. While there have been new births since then, they aren’t believed to be sufficient to prevent the species from going extinct.


Environmental advocates also raised concerns about the implementation of the new rules, most of which won’t take effect until next May.

“Despite paying lip service to the right whale’s dire situation, NOAA Fisheries is again doing too little, too late to prevent deadly entanglements,” said Jane Davenport, senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington-based conservation group that also previously sued NOAA and is threatening to sue again. “The species is already on borrowed time, . . . yet the agency is explicitly delaying rules.”

In Maine, lobstermen have protested the regulations when they were proposed several years ago, and state officials have told regulators their plans went too far. They have also threatened to sue regulators.

Earlier this year, after the draft plan was released, Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, expressed his dismay at an online hearing.

“While we understand and even support some additional levels of protection for North Atlantic right whales, it seems the agency is moving in a direction of species protection with no care about the collateral damage,” he said.

Keliher didn’t respond to requests for comment on the final rules, nor did officials from the Maine Lobstermen’s Association or Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association.

Officials in Maine have also expressed significant concerns about a key agency report that helped justify the regulations. Their “Biological Opinion,” a requirement of the Endangered Species Act, found that the lobster and crab industry is not jeopardizing the continued existence of right whales.


But the report suggested the industry and other fisheries will still have to be overhauled to reduce their risks to right whales. The agency also said the rules were the first step in a decade-long plan that seeks to drastically reduce the threats humans pose to the species.

If whales continue to die from entanglements, and regulators find the lobster industry is jeopardizing their existence, the federal government could close the fishery altogether.

In a letter to regulators this year, Maine Governor Janet Mills wrote that she had “grave concern” about the potential impact of their assessment, which she said could threaten the “survival of Maine’s iconic lobster industry, and in fact, our heritage.

The report suggested the need for a “complete reinvention of the Maine lobster fishery as we know it,” Mills wrote, noting that the industry generates an estimated $1 billion for the state’s economy, beyond revenue from the catch.

Indeed, the new rules for the first time authorize lobstermen to start using ropeless fishing gear, which allow them to raise their traps from the seafloor by using digital signals and balloons instead of buoy lines.

The experimental technology will be allowed in the newly closed fishing areas. They include nearly 1,000 square miles off the coast of Maine, affecting an estimated 62 vessels that fish from ports extending from Boothbay Harbor to Stonington, and nearly 5,500 square miles off the coast of Massachusetts, affecting an estimated 133 vessels.

Ropeless fishing, however, remains expensive and will likely require government support if it’s to be adopted on a wide scale.


“We recognize the technology isn’t fully mature, and we’re working with fishermen on it,” Pentony told reporters during an online press conference.

He said the agency plans to issue a “roadmap” to ropeless fishing over the next year.

Some private groups said they intended to help NOAA advance the technology, which they view as the ultimate way of protecting right whales — and the fishery.

“NOAA clearly believes ropeless fishing is the future; we’re going to help make it the present,” said Patrick Ramage, a senior director at the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “If these two iconic species — North Atlantic right whales and New England lobstermen — survive, it will be thanks to fresh thinking and bold action. Whales, fishermen, and government regulators need more of both.”

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