Right Whale Protections Amped Up in New England

A mother and calf off Massachusetts in 2015.           Photo: David L. Ryan, Boston Globe

A federal judge in Boston ruled late Thursday that Massachusetts is violating the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by granting permits to lobster fishers to use vertical buoy lines, the ropes that connect lobster traps on the seafloor to buoys at the surface, without federal permission because the fishing lines are the leading cause of death of highly endangered right whales over the past decade.  Earlier in the week, the state extended for a few days seasonal fishing restrictions and boat speed limits in most of Cape Cod Bay because right whale calves are feeding in the area – it is unclear whether they can lift them given the ruling.

Why This Matters:  The Boston court ruling will likely disrupt the lobster industry in the short run.  Recently, a federal court in Washington, D.C. held that the federal government was also violating the ESA by not protecting the whales sufficiently from the risk of entanglements in lobster lines.  The industry needs to transition to using ropeless technology.  It is not clear, however, how much harm the ruling actually causes given the pandemic’s disruptions.  It is good news for the whales — there are 10 new calves this spring and some are feeding in New England’s waters currently.

There Is No Dispute About the Harm Caused by Rope Lines

In the case, the state of Massachusetts did not dispute the fact that buoy lines present a threat to right whales but they argued that the measures they impose to reduce the risk, such as closing Cape Cod Bay to lobster fishing from February to May, were sufficient.  The federal government’s scientists also acknowledge the threat caused by the lobster trap buoy lines as well as the grave state of the species, saying that 83 whales have died since 2010 because of gear entanglement and ship strikes and only around 400 are remaining.  Two females appeared to be failing earlier this year off the coast of Nantucket — apparently both were entangled in fishing gear.  One solution is for the federal government to help the lobster fishery transition to new technology that allows for ropeless fishing, which would allow lobstermen to retrieve their traps without buoy lines

Ten New Calves Reported This Year

The Boston Globe reported on both the court decision and the fishing restrictions.  They noted in their story that ten new North Atlantic right whale calves have been born this year, according to federal officials. And even though this is good news, the trends have all been bad in recent years, and there is strong evidence that right whales off the U.S. east coast are suffering far more than right whales in other parts of the world. One of the new calves was struck by a ship off the coast of Georgia in January and has not been seen since, despite efforts to help it.  Recent aerial surveys have shown that there are several mother/child pairs feeding in Cape Cod Bay recently, which is typical for this time of year.  But soon they should move north to feeding grounds in Maine and Canada — but they are in danger from lobster lines and ship strikes there too.

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