State AG pushes for regional right whale protections

Stephan Savoia/AP file photoA North Atlantic right whale breaks the ocean surface off Provincetown in Cape Cod Bay. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey says the Northeast region needs to come together to help protect the iconic and endangered species and urges provincial leaders in Canada to adopt tougher restrictions on commercial fishing. 

BOSTON — Northeast leaders must do more to protect the iconic North Atlantic right whale, a critically endangered species teetering at the brink of extinction, according to Attorney General Maura Healey.

In a Sept. 4 letter to the Coalition of Northeastern Governors — which includes the six New England states and New York — and Eastern Canadian provincial leaders, the Democrat called for a stepped up regional approach to protecting right whales by reducing the risk of collisions with ships and fishing gear entanglements.

Healey, whose office is tasked with enforcing the state's Endangered Species Act, said regional leaders should consider actions taken by Massachusetts in recent years, including restrictions on lobster traps and fishing gear, reducing vessel speed limits and seasonal closures in state waters when right whales are feeding.

"Massachusetts, and its fishers, have long undertaken efforts to protect these whales as they migrate through our waters," Healey wrote. "Their fate is our shared responsibility."

Driven to the brink of extinction in the 20th century by whalers, right whales are more recently at risk from ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. The population of right whales was estimated at only 268 in the early 1990s before rebounding to a recent high of 481 around 2010, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

But the species has also been hindered by poor reproduction and several years of high mortality, scientists say, with less than 100 breeding females among about 400 individuals remaining.

Right whales migrate along the Atlantic coast each year, 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. They migrate south in the fall to give birth off Florida and Georgia.

Only a handful of new calves have been spotted by researchers in recent years, leading some to predict that the species could become extinct in the next two decades.

Gear proposals

Ironically, Healey's office last week rejected a proposed 2020 ballot initiative to ban commercial fishing nets and gear in state waters to prevent entanglements of whales and turtles.

The effort is being led by Richard "Max" Strahan, an activist known in environmental circles as the "Prince of Whales" for radical campaigns to protect the North Atlantic right whale.

Strahan’s proposal sought a ban on vertical buoy lines that scientists say are known to hurt or kill whales, turtles and other marine life. In April, he filed a lawsuit against the state Division of Marine Fisheries, alleging that it is violating the federal Endangered Species Act by requiring licensed fishermen to use vertical buoy ropes in their fishing gear.

Healey's office said Strahan's ballot proposal didn’t meet the legal requirements for certification because backers didn't get the 10 required signatures from registered voters.

Commercial fishermen say an outright ban on the gear would effectively doom an industry that's already struggling to survive amid stringent regulation and closures of fishing areas.

In the past decade, federal and state commercial fishing regulators have required lobstermen to change their gear and reduce the number of trap lines.

Those efforts have been recently met with resistance from commercial fishermen in Maine, the largest lobstering state in the U.S. The state recently pulled out of a regional agreement to protect right whales that would have required Maine lobstermen to remove roughly 50% of the trap lines from the water.

Under the pact, Massachusetts — where Gloucester is the top port for lobster landings — and New Hampshire have agreed to a 30% cut in the number of vertical buoy lines used by lobstermen, as well as using ropes with a lower 1,700-pound breaking strength or outfitted with devices that separate or cut the line when under pressure. Rhode Island has agreed to reduce the number of trap lines and use weaker rope.

Healey said the Northeast region needs to come together to help protect the iconic species and urged provincial leaders in Canada to adopt tougher restrictions on commercial fishing.

"We recognize, however, that such measures may not be sufficient, and that no state or province, acting alone, can solve this problem," she wrote. "We must act now; with each whale death, especially the reproductive age females, we tip closer to losing the species."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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