Money and focus on endangered whales

A move to earmark more money for Massachusetts Environmental Police to conduct more patrols to monitor the endangered right whales in state waters is the right step but must be part of a comprehensive plan to save this species.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, filed an amendment to the $47 billion state budget to add just $250,000 for more of these patrols, which many people say could sharpen the lookout for whales and spot lost or abandoned fishing gear, which often entangles and kills right whales.

Although some advocates for North Atlantic right whales, which scientists say number about 360, urge a ban on lobstering and fishing in state waters, that extreme measure is impractical and would doom a vital Massachusetts industry.

Fisheries officials do impose temporary closures of some areas when whales are migrating, one of many measures meant to protect the species. The most recent example was earlier this year, when the state’s lobster fishery was closed for more than a month following whale sightings.

Statehouse reporter Christian Wade reported last week that fishing groups support more funding for marine patrols, because more surveillance could help reduce collisions with non-fishing vessels and likely pinpoint more “ghost nets” which have been broken off or abandoned by fishing boats.

“We need more people on the water,” said Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association. “Right now, the environmental police don’t have enough manpower.”

North Atlantic right whales are protected under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Fisheries officials have put some measures in place to try to limit injuries and deaths to these whales, including those temporary closures, lowering speed limits for boats during specific times, and developing right whale alert systems. Ensuring those steps are implemented and fully effective is essential to the species’ survival.

The once-numerous North Atlantic right whales are at a critical stage for their survival.

A report on the number of whales calves born so far in the 2021 calving season brings hope. NOAA reports that researchers have identified 17 live calves so far this season, compared to only 22 births that were recorded during the previous four calving seasons combined.

It’s a chilling recognition of how endangered this species is when small victories like this can be counted on four hands, and any number of human-caused or environmental factors could tip the balance.

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