As Atlantic Right Whale Nears Extinction, State Clips Lobstering


Effective March 5, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries imposed a complete ban on the setting of “buoyed” lobster traps in Massachusetts coastal waters from Cape Cod to the New Hampshire border. 

The ban—which impacts the 19 lobster fishing license holders in Manchester—is employed to protect the migrating North Atlantic Right Whale from the often-lethal gear entanglements blamed for diminishing their population to near extinction and will last until May 15 (unless further whale migration data dictates otherwise). 

Massachusetts is one the first state to implement these strict restrictions.

Effective May 1 any lobster traps further set in these areas must employ buoy lines using “weak rope” with a breaking point of no greater than 1,700 pounds.

Commercial whaling in the 19thCentury drove the North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis) to near extinction and the population has never recovered.  According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, fewer than 400 North Atlantic Right Whales exist in the world today with fewer than 100 breeding females amongst them.  Studies by the NOAA have concluded that entanglement in fishing gear is one of the leading causes of Right Whale mortality.

But the heavy burden now imposed on the families who are dependent on the Lobster industry has not gone unnoticed.

Last August, in a case brought against the National Marine Fishery Service under the Endangered Species Act, a Federal Court ordered the Division of Marine Fishery to reassess its management of the American Lobster Industry while blaming it for its failure to properly account for impacts on the Right Whale. 

In ordering the reassessment, the Court noted that “the COVID-19 pandemic has gutted the market for lobster, cutting the price in half and pushing fishermen, most of whom are self-employed, to the economic brink. “Most of the small businesses and individuals who operate or work on lobster fishing vessels in Massachusetts have limited financial resources,” and SNERA could “shut down” affected lobstermen “for good.”

“It’s hard to tell anyone to go a period of time without any income and that’s what we’re saying to the lobster fishery,” said Massachusetts Senator Bruce Tarr, a member of the “coastal caucus.”  He said the issue of protecting the Right Whale has been impacting the state’s South Shore lobstermen for a while, but now the rules are extending this to the entire coastal zone.   “There’s a lot of momentum behind the effort (to protect the Right Whale) but we also can’t let the lobstermen to go extinct while we’re doing it.”

Tarr said his caucus has been working on addressing to modify the state’s unemployment insurance system to provide additional financial support while the state mandates the sidelining of their livelihood. 

He said they are also exploring grants for enhanced “ropeless” gear and other systems that would protect the whales without banning lobstering activities.

massachusetts, lobstering, right whale, national marine fishery service, division of marine fishery, bruce tarr, national oceanic and atmospheric association