The Massachusetts Marine Fisheries Advisory Commission on Thursday approved additional protections for the endangered North Atlantic right whales, including a three-and-a-half month trap gear closure throughout state waters and mandated use of weaker buoy lines.
Meeting via webinar, the MFAC overwhelmingly approved five of the six recommendations presented by the state Division of Marine Fisheries, setting the stage for a hectic start to the state's 2021 lobster fishing season.
"We think this is surgical and appropriate," DMF Director Dan McKiernan told commission members. "We believe this is the most responsible way to manage this fishery."
As the state faces challenges on two fronts — the federal take reduction team initiative to stem whale entanglements and deaths and ongoing federal litigation that names Massachusetts as a defendant in a lawsuit filed under the Endangered Species Act — the commission approved:
* A Feb. 1 to May 15 closure to commercial trap gear in state waters -- including off Cape Ann --to help mitigate whale entanglements, injuries and deaths during the period when right whales are most prevalent in the region. The only exceptions are the waters south and west of Cape Cod because of an absence of whale sightings in those areas. The closure is roughly two weeks longer than DMF's initial recommendation, but the measure gives DMF the power to lift all or part of the closure between May 1 and 15 "based on the presence and absence of right whales."
The endangered right whales give birth off Florida and Georgia in fall before arriving in New England waters to feed in the late winter and early spring, congregating on Stellwagen Bank, a fishing ground located about 15 miles southeast of Gloucester, and off Cape Cod.
* Mandated use of weaker buoy lines designed to break at 1,700 pounds of pressure or buoy lines rigged with contrivances that allow it to break away at the same tension. That measure, again to reduce gear entanglements, is a key element in the federal recommendations from the Large Whale Take Reduction Team and will go into effect May 1.
* A measure setting the maximum buoy line diameters for both commercial and recreational lobstermen. Commercial harvesters will be prohibited from using lines greater than 3/8-inch in diameter, while recreational lobstermen cannot use lines exceeding 5/16-inch in diameter.
* A Jan. 15 to May 15 gillnet closure in Cape Cod Bay that includes waters in the northwest portion of the bay.
* A statewide haul-out period for buoyed recreational gear to run from Nov. 1 to May 15 to help reduce the amount of lost or abandoned gear.
Following a discussion among commission members, the sixth DMF recommendation prohibiting the fishing of single lobster traps in state waters by vessels with a length of 29 feet or more was withdrawn for further analysis.
The measure was not to go into effect until Jan. 1, 2022. The commission formed a four-member subcommittee to work with DMF to approach the issue "on a larger scale."
Sawyer dissents on ban
All but one of the approved measures passed on unanimous 8-0 votes.
The exception was the recommendation for the Feb. 1 to May 15 commercial trap gear closure in all state waters. It passed by a vote of 6-1, with one abstention by commission member Bill Amaru of Orleans.
The lone dissenting vote on the measure came from longtime Gloucester lobsterman Arthur "Sooky" Sawyer, who also serves as president of the Massachusetts Lobstermen's Association.
Sawyer opposed the expansion of the closure to waters north of Boston and around Cape Ann, saying it would create unnecessary hardship for the area's lobstermen.
"I can't accept that the North Shore (lobster industry) has to accept all this work," Sawyer stated. "I can't support this motion. The Massachusetts inshore lobster fishery has never killed a right whale. I'm voting no."
Sawyer was not the only commission member conflicted by the closure. But concern for the future of the fishery if the state does not receive an incidental take reduction permit from the federal government, as well as the specter of what could happen if Massachusetts loses the lawsuit in federal court, held sway.
"We need to make a hard decision," said commission member Shelley Edmundson of Tisbury.
Conservation criticism, praise
The DMF recommendations, when initially proposed, produced a tsunami of public comment from lobstermen and conservation organizations. DMF characterized the response as "unprecedented," saying it received about 2,000 pages of written comment.
Many environmental groups charged the original measures didn't go far enough to protect the right whales, whose population numbers, according to researchers, declined to 366 in 2019 after peaking at 481 in 2011.
Many of the commenters sought to extend the closure into January and said the recommendations should have included a more aggressive and rapid approach to ropeless fishing to more fully reduce the number of vertical lines in the region's waters.
On Thursday, some gave credit where credit was due, saying Massachusetts has separated itself from the pack when it comes to "ocean conservation and responsible lobster fishing."
"Massachusetts got it right for North Atlantic right whales today," Gib Brogan, campaign manager for Oceana, said in a statement. "When implemented, the new regulations will make Massachusetts waters a safer destination for North Atlantic right whales, which will be traveling north with their calves in the coming months."
Brogan urged other New England states and the federal government to follow suit.
"Massachusetts set its lobster industry apart today," he stated. "Maine and the federal government should take note of Massachusetts' leadership and implement additional measures to prevent fishing gear entanglements in state and federal waters before the North Atlantic right whales are gone forever."
Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT