Last week, a federal panel drafted a slew of conservation recommendations to help the imperiled and declining North Atlantic right whale population. Now Congress may enter the fray.

A House bill to create a decade-long, $50 million grant program to help protect the North Atlantic right whales was approved Wednesday by the National Resource Committee and is heading to a vote by the full House membership.

The bill, with U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton — now announced as a presidential candidate — as the primary sponsor, would require the Commerce secretary to provide $5 million annually for 10 years to fund competitive grants for projects related to the conservation of the whales, whose declining population is estimated to hover under 450.

"The health of the right whales is directly tied to the health of our region’s economy and identity," Moulton said in a statement. "The whales play a key role in an ecosystem that supports thousands of jobs in commercial fishing and tourism, and it’s up to us to do everything we can to save this species." 

The bill is supported by the New England Aquarium in Boston and the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen's Alliance.

A similar bill, with Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey as a co-sponsor, has been filed in the Senate.

The pool of potential grant applicants, according to the Moulton measure, would include federal, state and tribal agencies, research institutions, fishing stakeholders, the shipping industry and non-profit organizations already involved in North Atlantic right whale conservation.

The bill as approved by the House committee carries a non-federal matching requirement of 25 percent from grant recipients. The matching requirement, which may come in the form of in-kind contributions, also may be waived for projects identified as high priorities.

The legislation, titled the SAVE Right Whales Act, also stresses the need for the United States and Canada to work together on conserving, and potentially increasing, the population of the North Atlantic right whales that has fallen prey to a dangerous man-made cocktail of gear entanglements and ship strikes.

Last Friday, NOAA Fisheries' Large Whale Take Reduction Team, meeting for four days in Providence, Rhode Island, compiled a list of recommendations to mitigate human causes of North Atlantic right whale mortalities.

It zeroed in on reducing the number of vertical commercial fishing lines — primarily in the lobster and crab industries —in the waters off New England where the North Atlantic right whales feed and migrate. The recommendations also include employing weaker rope for the remaining lines, so they will more easily break when a right whale comes into contact with a line.

The team's recommendations call for Massachusetts lobstermen to reduce the number of vertical lines — which run from surface buoys to traps on the Atlantic Ocean seabed — by 30 percent. The target for Maine is even higher — 50 percent.

The recommendations, which still must be approved by NOAA Fisheries, did not include area closures, ropeless gear or trap limits sought by environmental groups, such as the Conservation Law Foundation. 

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

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