Inshore lobstering ban to begin in March 

A North Atlantic right whale peers up from the water as another whale passes behind in Cape Cod Bay near Provincetown. A ban on commercial lobstering in Massachusetts inshore waters is slated to start next month as a means to protect migrating North Atlantic right whales. The species is listed as endangered. (Stephan Savoia/AP file photo)

The seasonal closure of virtually all Massachusetts waters to commercial lobstering will not begin before March 5 and could be delayed another two weeks into March.

Daniel McKiernan, executive director of the state Division of Marine Fisheries, said the recently enacted state rules to help protect North Atlantic right whales remain under review by federal regulators.

"If not March 5, then it will be two weeks later," McKiernan said in a text message.

The Feb. 1 to May 15 closure, imposed in all state waters except those south and west of Cape Cod, is the centerpiece of a rules package approved Jan. 28 by the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries Advisory Commission, based on recommendations from DMF.

"We think this is surgical and appropriate," McKiernan told the commission. "We believe this is the most responsible way to manage the fishery."

The closure is set for the period in the late winter and early spring when the North Atlantic right whales travel north through the waters off the Massachusetts coast on their feeding migration into the Gulf of Maine and on into Canadian waters.

The closure, which is two weeks longer than DMF's initial recommendation, is designed to reduce the number of vertical buoy lines in the water to help avert injuries and deaths from right whale entanglements in lobster and other commercial trap gear.

Under the approved measure, DMF retains the power to lift all or parts of the closure in the fortnight between May 1 and May 15, depending on whether right whales are still present in state waters. 

North Atlantic right whales generally give birth off the coasts of Florida and Georgia in the fall before heading north, often congregating around Stellwagen Bank, about 15 miles southeast of of Gloucester, when they reach this region.

The population of the endangered right whales has been in decline since 2011. Researchers now estimate there are about 366 of the whales remaining.

Last weekend, NOAA Fisheries reported that a dead stranded right whale calf washed ashore in Florida, making it the first observed right whale death in U.S. waters in 2021.

The agency said the dead whale was the calf of a 19-year-old female right whale named Infinity. The calf was first spotted Jan. 17 off the coast of Amelia Island, Florida.

"Regrettably, it is the second dead right whale calf of the 2020–2021 calving season, following the discovery of a dead calf in North Carolina in November 2020," NOAA Fisheries stated, adding that its Office of Law Enforcement is investigating the incident.

Other measures approved by the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries Advisory Commission include the mandated use of weaker lobster buoy lines designed to break at 1,700 pounds of pressure or buoy lines rigged with break-away contrivances that give at the same amount of pressure.

It also approved a measure that sets the maximum buoy line diameter for both commercial and recreational lobstermen. Commercial lobstermen will not be able to use buoy lines wider than 3/8-inch, while recreational lobstermen may not use buoy lines that exceed 5/16-inch in diameter.

Also, the commission established a Jan. 15 to May 15 gillnet closure in Cape Cod Bay and a statewide haul-out period for buoyed lobster gear to run Nov. 1 to May 15 to help reduce the amount of abandoned or lost gear.

The MFAC delayed action on the measure calling for the prohibition against fishing single lobster traps in state waters from vessels 29 feet or greater in length.

Instead, it formed a four member subcommittee — which includes Gloucester lobsterman Arthur "Sooky" Sawyer, president of the Massachusetts Lobstermen's Association — to work with DMF to provide further analysis. 

Lobstering is one of New England 's most lucrative marine industries. Massachusetts is the second biggest exporter of lobster, behind Maine, in the U.S. Gloucester is the Bay State’s top port when it comes to lobster landings, while Rockport is in the top five.

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or shorgan@gloucestertimes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT

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