Lobstermen invited to weigh in on whale protection plan

Kirk R.Williamson/File photo/Tom Scola of the lobster boat Jen & Christie loads traps onto the St. Peter's Square wharf this spring. The federal government is seeking comment Tuesday night in Gloucester on a proposed 60 percent reduction in vertical trap and fishing lines to better protect a North Atlantic right whales from entanglements. 

The eight-community traveling road show to gather public comment on new protections for the imperiled North Atlantic right whales hits Gloucester on Tuesday evening and is expected to draw a big crowd at NOAA's Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office in the Blackburn Industrial Park.

The Gloucester session, set to run from 6 to 9 p.m. at the GARFO headquarters at 55 Great Republic Drive, is the seventh of the eight scoping meetings and the first of two in Massachusetts. The other is scheduled for the next night in Bourne.

The sessions organized by NOAA Fisheries are in advance of a draft environmental impact statement for modifications to the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan. They will provide a forum for stakeholders and others to comment on new protections proposed by the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team. Those include lobster gear modifications and a reduction of the number of vertical endlines to reduce whale casualties and mortalities.

The new measures, adopted in April by the take reduction team, call for lobstermen throughout New England to reduce the number of vertical lines in the water to mitigate whale entanglements and reduce North Atlantic right whale mortalities by 60 percent.

In Massachusetts and New Hampshire, lobstermen are tasked with reducing the number of vertical lines by 30 percent. In Maine, where opposition to the new measures is strongest, the reduction target is significantly higher — 50 percent.

"We are requesting comments on management options, particularly including information about operational challenges, time and costs required to modify gear by changing configurations, such as traps per trawl, to reduce endline numbers, installing new line or sleeves and by expanding gear-marking requirements," NOAA Fisheries said.

Staff from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries also will participate in the Gloucester scoping session, offering agency input and data analysis.

DMF said it has been in constant contact with NOAA Fisheries staff and provided updated data analyses and advice. The agency said it has urged the federal fishery regulator "to make every effort to strive for a single set of regulations" within each lobster conservation management area in the region.

According to DMF, the session will open with a presentation by NOAA Fisheries to offer a regulatory context, detail the proposed protections and offer a snapshot on the current status of right whales. Scientists now believe North Atlantic right whales number about 400 after this deadly summer in which eight died in Canadian waters.

If the initial scoping sessions in Maine are any measure, there will be no shortage of public comment.

On Monday night in Machias, according to the Portland Press Herald, lobstermen demanded evidence from NOAA Fisheries staff that their lobster gear is a prime source of right whale casualties or mortalities. Some also questioned whether right whales currently remain in the Gulf of Maine.

"We cannot protect these whales wherever they may swim," the newspaper quoted lobsterman John Drouin of Cutler. "Fishermen are stewards of the ocean and we do not want to see these creatures die from fishing gear. But the problem is not Maine fishing gear."

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


What: Public comment session on new protections for the imperiled North Atlantic right whales.

When: Tuesday, Aug. 20, from 6 to 9 p.m.

Where: NOAA's Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office, 5 Great Republic Drive in Blackburn Industrial Park, Gloucester.

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