Endangered Right Whales vs Lobstermen

David Abel- The [North Atlantic Right] whales’ arrival in Cape Cod Bay — about half of the overall population was recently there feeding on a vast swarm of zooplankton — coincides with another, more controversial effort to protect the species from extinction.

This week, a team of federal and state officials, scientists, fishermen, and others appointed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration plan to meet in Providence and issue formal recommendations that seek to reduce whale deaths and serious injuries by as much as 80 percent.

The recommendations, likely to be adopted by NOAA, could have a significant effect on lobstermen and other fishermen throughout the Northeast. The region’s lobster industry alone takes in more than $500 million a year, consistently making it the nation’s most valuable fishery.

Mike Pentony, the regional administrator of NOAA, said he hoped the team would “assist us in taking the important steps necessary to reverse the decline of this iconic species.”

Lobstermen throughout the region, however, have expressed deep concerns about the possible closures and other regulations.

In Massachusetts, lobstermen from Plymouth to Provincetown say they have borne the brunt of previous regulations and fear additional government requirements could hurt their ability to make a living.

Since 2014, NOAA has banned lobstermen from setting traps in Cape Cod Bay between Feb. 1 and April 30, or until right whales leave the area. Many of the lobstermen complain that the ban also effectively keeps them from fishing in January and May because they have to spend weeks removing and then resetting their traps.

Other closures prevent fishing in the Great South Channel, a vast bottom southeast of Chatham, between April 1 and June 30 when whales frequent those waters.

“We are looking at drastic changes coming our way,” said John Haviland, president of the South Shore Lobster Fishermen’s Association, who has spent 43 years fishing, mainly out of Marshfield.

Haviland said he has lost significant business to the existing closures. 

“It causes not just economic hardship. For a lot of guys, it causes emotional or mental hardship.”

Many lobstermen feel they have been unfairly blamed for the deaths of right whales. They hope the government will find ways for them to continue fishing.

“If there are additional closures, an awful lot of guys will be hurting,” said Dave Casoni, who has fished out of Sandwich for 45 years.

Some lobstermen already lose as much as $20,000 a month because of the existing closures, he said. 

While many lobstermen in Maine have benefited from record catches in recent years — the value of the landings there is now about three times what it was in 2000 — others further to the south have been struggling with more modest catches and rising costs for bait and fuel.

“For me, it’s a matter of just hanging in there,” said Casoni, 75. “But for the younger guys in the business, there’s a real question about whether they can continue making a living doing this work.”

Agency officials and scientists on the team said they recognize the threat of additional regulations to the industry.

Many of them have been hoping that new technology will ultimately enable lobstermen to fish with remotely activated devices that would raise traps to the surface.

One option the team is considering is whether some lobstermen could be permitted to use such ropeless fishing systems in closed areas, providing an incentive to experiment with the new technology.

“The situation cries for an innovative approach, and from my point of view, ropeless fishing is the best idea out there,” said Charles “Stormy” Mayo, a member of the Take Reduction Team and director of the Right Whale Ecology Program at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown.

Many lobstermen, however, say the technology remains clunky and too expensive to be a practical solution. With as many as 800 traps per lobsterman, the equipment could cost tens of thousands of dollars, they say.

While the fishermen and environmental advocates debate how to protect right whales, scientists this month have been taking advantage of their arrival in Cape Cod Bay. On a recent clear afternoon, a team aboard a Center for Coastal Studies plane counted 221 whales, distinguishing them by blotch-like calluses that form distinctive marks on their heads. Read More

Any members of the Clothstituence also in the lobster industry? With less than 500 whales in existence, safety certainly is paramount. However, as a small business owner, it would be concerning to think about the rising cost of staying in the lobster business. Of course, no one will really start asking questions about this until the cost of lobster rolls goes over $50. Anyone have any solutions?