MASS. - Marine experts warn the North Atlantic right whale could become extinct unless more is done to save it, but some don’t want those protections to come at the expense of the local fishing industry.
The right whale’s dwindling population has been a concern since the 1930s, when the species was included in the National Endangered Species Act.
In recent years, the population has slipped further. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates it dropped from 412 whales in Jan. 2018 to just 366 the following year.
Gib Brogan, a campaign director with Oceana, helps lead the organization’s efforts to save North Atlantic Right whales.
“Because North Atlantic right whales are in such a critically endangered situation, the bar is very high on what needs to be done,” Brogan said. “The scientists can tell us that fewer than one North Atlantic right whale can die every year if we’re going to support the recovery of the species.”
Brogan said five years ago, a change in migration patterns set off what’s known as an "unusual mortality event," due to entanglements with fishing gear and collisions with boats.
“Even if a whale ultimately doesn’t die because of entanglement, it can affect their ability to feed,” Brogan said. “Scientists at the New England Aquarium have found that the whales have gotten smaller at a certain age over the last few decades.”
From February through April, the North Atlantic right whale can be found feeding off the coast of Massachusetts. Since 2015, federal and state regulations have closed Cape Cod Bay and its surrounding waters to commercial fishing and the lobster industry during these months.
Beth Casoni, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, said there’s a harsh impact on the industry when 9,000 square miles of water shuts down for three months.
“Here in Massachusetts, the lobstermen have been under some of the most Draconian conservation measures anywhere, period,” Casoni said. “That puts an economic hardship on the industry. I say it all the time. I don’t know anybody that can lose three months of their income and still survive.”
As efforts to protect the North Atlantic right whale intensify, groups like the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association are navigating new restrictions while trying to keep business going.
Casoni said that process has required creativity, including the invention of a new rope that may be the lobstermen’s ticket to a less restrictive fishing schedule.
“Over the last two and a half years we have developed a weak rope that has helped keep our fishermen fishing while being compliant with the regulations that have come down,” Casoni said. “The weak rope comes from the New England Aquarium study saying that 1,700 pounds is a threshold that the weakest of the large whales can break, the juveniles.”
Eventually, efforts like this could translate to more open waters for the state’s lobstermen, but a lengthy permitting process stands in the way of their goal.
“We have to acquire in Massachusetts what they call an incidental take permit, and this incidental take permit I kind of equate it to the Willy Wonka in the Chocolate Factory, the golden ticket,” Casoni said. “There’s been no incidental take permit issued for any fishery, so that tells you how big this goal is.”
Meanwhile, Brogan says they can do more to protect the whales without disrupting vessel traffic or the economic viability of fisheries.
“We need to be protecting the whales more effectively from the risk of being struck by boats,” Brogan said. “Those rules right now largely rely on voluntary cooperation with speed zones. The scientists tell us if we slow the boats down to below ten knots, a little bit more than 10 miles per hour, that it can reduce the risk to the whales up to 80%.”