GLOUCESTER — During its four-day meeting at the Beauport Hotel last week, the Newburyport-based New England Fisheries Management Council heard from NOAA Fisheries officials about ways to protect the whale endangered North Atlantic Black Sea with a proposed 10 knot speed limit for vessels 35 up to 65 feet long, extended seasonal speed zones and ropeless fishing gear to prevent whales from get tangled in the lines of lobster traps.
Caroline Good, a large whale ecologist at NOAA Fisheries, presented the proposed rules aimed at preventing right whales from being struck by ships and killed or injured.
The board, however, could not reach a consensus to comment on the proposed changes.
Good said the right whale population continues to decline and is near extinction due to deaths and serious injuries from entanglement in fishing gear and collisions with vessels. There are less than 350 right whales left.
Since 2017, scientists have documented 54 right whales killed or seriously injured in US and Canadian waters. Of these, according to Good’s presentation, 11 were killed due to ship strikes and nine from entanglements.
Right whales are present in U.S. waters year-round, but in greatest numbers from late fall to early summer, Good said. They are very vulnerable to ship strikes due to the heavy shipping traffic along the East Coast.
Current rules require vessels 65 feet or longer, with some exceptions, to speed to 10 knots or less in specific areas and times off the east coast.
To further protect the whales, NOAA Fisheries launched the voluntary Dynamic Management Area program, requiring ships to slow to 10 knots in areas where three or more right whales are found outside of seasonal management areas. But voluntary cooperation has been poor.
To reduce fatal vessel strikes, NOAA Fisheries is proposing expanded “seasonal speed zones” that would require vessels 35 feet in length and over to meet the 10-knot speed limit.
The agency also proposes creating mandatory but concentrated “dynamic speed zones” when right whales are detected outside seasonal zones.
Good said the current limits are insufficient to provide protection. A proposed seasonal speed zone runs south from Cape Ann along the east coast to North Carolina from November 1 through May 30.
“Overall, the changes would double the area subject to speed restrictions along the coast,” Good said. She said the changes disproportionately affect the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, where strike risk is not factored in.
Good said Massachusetts already enforced a speed restriction for most vessels under 65 feet in Cape Cod Bay in March and April.
Cost of slowing down
As for the economic impact, NOAA Fisheries estimated that nearly 16,000 vessels, although it could be more, would be affected at an estimated annual cost of $46 million. The cost would be borne largely by large ocean-going vessels and 89% would fall on New England and Mid-Atlantic vessels.
Commercial fishing vessels and sailboats would be less affected because they already cruise at 10 knots or less, Good said.
Daniel Salerno, a member of the New Hampshire Fisheries Management Board, said he was happy to see the agency was dealing with ship strikes, but asked how it would improve compliance.
“Just because you put in more zones and lower the limit doesn’t mean you’re going to address compliance,” Salerno said.
Good noted that the lack of compliance was with voluntary areas. Compliance with seasonal management areas was “just over 81% of vessel transit distance”.
Good said the comment period has been extended until October 31 as the agency seeks to finalize the rules as soon as possible.
Council Chairman Eric Reid asked the council to draft a letter of comment, but the council could not reach consensus amid a discussion of the possible economic impact on the fishing industry and future technologies to better determine where right whales are so they can be avoided. .
Member Alan Tracy from Maine said: ‘And I would personally prefer not to say anything that, you know, kind of celebrate that attention is going to be on ship strikes and speed limits and all that because it has potentially a huge negative value on the industry for all the reasons we’ve discussed.
“I would just say that there is probably no common ground and there is probably no letter to be written based on the comments raised,” said Service Network member Libby Etrie. from the northeast sector of Gloucester, which was very supportive of the agency examining the vessel. strikes. “It’s kind of something that I feel like a lot of people in the commercial and fixed gear fishing industry have had to make up for, so I’m in favor of that.”
The council also heard from Michael Asaro, an economist at the NOAA Fisheries Northeast Fisheries Science Center, on ropeless fishing and a draft proposal titled “Ropeless Roadmap: A Strategy to Develop On-Demand Fishing.”
In ropeless fishing, to retrieve their traps, lobsters send an acoustic signal from their boat to a release mechanism attached to the trap or chain of traps. The signal triggers a release that allows the ropeless system – a retractable cover attached to a line and a buoy, an inflatable lifting bag or a floating reel – to rise to the surface. Lobster fishermen can then raise the traps.
“We’re not looking at on-demand gear for all fixed gear fisheries all the time, everywhere, and that’s a really key point,” he said. “I think for many the current state of the on-demand equipment discussion involves two opposing poles, those who think on-demand equipment is not feasible and never will be, and others who think on-demand equipment is our only solution and needs to be adopted in a mainstream way tomorrow.
The roadmap is somewhere in between. He noted that the availability of equipment on demand is a challenge given that its manufacture is limited.
The approximate cost of $4,000 per unit makes converting all of a fisherman’s gear unaffordable.
Work on on-demand fishing includes removing regulatory barriers for ropeless gear in areas most at risk of right whale entanglement. Officials are also working on geolocation technology to minimize conflicts with other fishing gear.
“On-demand fishing gear shows promise,” Asaro said, “when allowed in otherwise restricted areas today and will be in the future, but at the same time more testing, experimental fishing and regulatory changes are needed, and as always, stakeholder support is critical to the success of how this develops over time.
Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-675-2714 or [email protected]