On June 18, the Pew Charitable Trusts sent a petition to Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) requesting emergency rules in a broad stretch of the Gulf of Maine and in Massachusetts waters to protect North Atlantic right whales. The petition comes as NMFS is drafting its new Biological Opinion under the Endangered Species Act on whether the continuation of the American lobster fishery poses a threat to the recovery of the endangered right whale population. A draft was to be published in July; NMFS now anticipates its draft Biological Opinion may be completed by late summer or early fall.
The petition asks the Department of Commerce to close four areas to all vertical lines: 1) year-round closure in an area below Nantucket, 2) a seasonal closure offshore of Mount Desert Island (August to Oct), 3) a seasonal closure off Jeffreys Ledge (May to July), and 4) a large seasonal closure along the Area 1/Area 3 line (October to May).
In a letter accompanying the petition Peter Baker of Pew Charitable Trusts and attorney Purcie Bennett-Nickerson wrote of the vulnerability of the right whale population. “Specifically, we request that you designate one year-round closure south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, and three seasonal offshore closures in the Gulf of Maine in which the use of vertical lines in the American lobster and Jonah crab fisheries is prohibited…. The proposed areas have been scientifically identified as posing the greatest risk of entanglement to the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.”
The petition further encourages Commerce to put in place other restrictions in addition to closures. “We also request that through the permanent rulemaking the Secretary consider and implement additional measures that would complement vertical line trap/pot closures. Alternatives for such measures should include trap reductions and vertical line limits that cumulatively, with vertical line closures, will reduce take below the legal thresholds, including alternatives identified through the 2019 scoping to initiate rulemaking under the MMPA [Marine Mammal Protection Act].”
The petition is a method for Pew Charitable Trusts to pressure NMFS to move more quickly on the Biological Opinion, as well as bring the possibility of ropeless fishing to the foreground.
“Maine has strongly opposed these closure proposals over the past couple of years, and they were soundly rejected by the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team. Unfortunately, Pew is trying to resurrect them without any rational scientific basis,” commented Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.