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Lobstermen Balk At New Rules to Save Right Whales
Northeast Environmental Hub
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Regulations are designed to keep whales from getting entangled in fishing gear.


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3:58 minutes (1.91 MB)
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As lobstermen prepare to set their traps this spring, they're facing a new way of working on the water. Federal regulations that take effect April 5th require them to use rope that sinks rather than rope that floats. The idea is to protect endangered right whales whose numbers are estimated at fewer than 400. The whales can become entangled and die in floating fishing gear. As part of a collaboration with Northeast stations, Maine Public Radio's Susan Sharon reports lobstermen are not convinced the rope will do much good.

The new rules affect more than 4,400 lobstermen, gillnet and crab pot fishermen from Maine to Georgia. Those who fish close to shore, such as Long Island Sound lobstermen, are exempt because whales are not known to congregate there. Recently, Maine lobstermen have been lining up in parking lots to turn in their old rope and get vouchers to purchase the more expensive sinking gear. 

Lobsterman James Davenport said it will still cost him thousands of dollars to make the switch.  And that's after he gets $1.40 a pound for turning in his floating rope through this buyback program. Rope that sinks costs more than twice as much as ropes that floats.

"They shouldn't pass the law but it's already been passed,” said Davenport. “And I don't know if it's going to help the fishermen at all. It's just more money."

Bob Blanchard, a lobsterman from South Bristol, Maine who turned in about 350 pounds of old rope, said some of his peers can't afford to make the switch.

“You kinda gotta go with the flow and if the regulations say this is what you need to do, you might as well go ahead and do it rather than beat your head on the wall,” said Blanchard.

The price of bait and fuel is high and lobster prices fell to a low of $2 a pound in the fall. Blanchard and others are also skeptical that regulators know the best way to protect whales.

“They have reasons for what they're doing,” said Blanchard, “but in 18 years I've only seen one whale period. You kind of scratch your head, but keep going."

But further south in Cape Cod Bay, people are seeing right whales. Every year researchers from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies take to the skies to count right whales who are feeding just offshore. Senior Scientist Dr. Charles Mayo said more than 75 were recently counted.

“They come in every year to Cape Cod Bay around January but the numbers are usually quite low,” Mayo said. “This year early on the numbers have been very high."

The increased sightings coincide with some other positive findings about the endangered species. Federal regulators say this year there's been a record 39 births of right whales, and the confirmed number of right whale deaths has declined. There were just two last year. But not all the recent records about right whales have been good.

Vicki Cornish is with the Washington D.C.-based Ocean Conservancy.

“We've had a record number, actually, of entanglements since December, 2008,” said Cornish,” five entangled whales in the span of just a couple of months."

Two years ago, the group joined the Humane Society of the United States in filing suit against the National Marine Fisheries Service, accusing the agency of failing to protect the right whale. Since then the federal government has taken steps to reduce ship speeds and move shipping lanes to prevent collisions with whales. But both ship strikes and entanglements remain two of the biggest human-caused threats to whales.

“Whales are continuing to get entangled at very high levels and over the last 15 years that we've been working on this problem those entanglement rates really haven't changed," said Cornish.

Before this new rule, the rope used to connect lobster traps floated several feet up in the water column. Once caught in a whale's mouth, the long ropes with traps could be dragged for hundreds of miles, sometimes wrapping around the whale's head or fins and making it difficult for the whale to swim or feed properly.

Mayo said it's challenging for whale rescue teams to get close enough to safely remove the gear.

“The right whales are probably the most dangerous and difficult animal to deal with at sea."

Meanwhile, as lobstermen adjust to the new requirements in a troublesome economy, federal regulators are eyeing additional restrictions to protect whales. Vertical lines that connect traps to buoys on the surface are also under fire. And many fishermen say if those are eliminated their futures will become as precarious as the right whales.

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