Lobsters and whales

Posted Feb. 01, 2009, at 7:32 p.m.

The sighting of a large group of right whales in the Gulf of Maine adds credence to suggestions that more research must be done before deciding that lobster gear near the shore is a threat to the endangered cetaceans.

Late last year, more than 40 of the whales were seen in the Jordan Basin during an aerial survey by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The area where the whales were spotted is well offshore, about 70 miles south of Bar Harbor, far from where the vast majority of lobstermen work.

In April, NOAA will require all lobstermen who work past a line, about three miles from the shore, to use rope that sinks. Most lobstermen use line that floats to connect their traps. Federal regulators say the switch is necessary to ensure that right whales don’t get entangled in lobster gear. Lobstermen fear the sinking rope will snag on the rocky bottom that is common Down East. This will add to their costs because they will have to replace rope more frequently and will leave more dangling, broken rope (called ghost gear) in the water.

While whales should not be put in danger from rope used in lobstering, federal regulators have yet to show where right whale habitat and lobster fishing grounds overlap. Lobstermen make a convincing argument that the new rope rule, which applies along most of the East Coast, is overly broad.

Last month’s flights offer a key piece of information to more precisely map whale habitat. Once a fuller picture has been compiled, overlaying that information with a map of where lobstermen work will go along way to answering the question of overlap.

A recently enacted rule that requires ships to slow down in known whale travel lanes is an example of a better tailored rule. In addition, the rule requires review to ensure it is working to keep right whales from being hit by boats.

Without similar provisions, many lobstermen may be making expensive and time-consuming line changes that will have little or no benefit on whale populations.

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