WDC was among the “no-shows” at last week’s Harbor Porpoise Take Reduction Team meeting in Providence, Rhode Island. Some conservationists as well as the entire delegation of experts from the science and academic community chose to “boycott” this meeting. The issue? A decision made by John Bullard, the Northeast Regional Administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service. Bullard’s fall decision allowed fishing in an area that his Agency’s regulations had mandated for a two month closure despite evidence of the increasing number of harbor porpoises killed as a result of the fishing industry’s low compliance with fishing federal regulations designed to reduce mortality. Affordable acoustic “pingers” have been shown to reduce mortality of porpoises by up to 90% and they are required for use in New England during much of the time when porpoises are in the area in greatest numbers. There has been a federal mandate to use these “pingers” since 1998. But compliance with the mandate has recently slipped badly.
The Harbor Porpoise Take Reduction Team is a federally appointed group of scientists, conservationists, fishermen, and state and federal agency representatives mandated by the Marine Mammal Protection Act to develop plans to reduce marine mammal bycatch in specific fisheries when the operation of the fishery results in high levels of mortality. In 2008, the Team, including members of the fisheries, agreed that if compliance with fishing regulations mandating pinger use was not adequate, mandatory “consequence” closures would be put in place for short periods in specific locations to protect the porpoises. As a result of increasing numbers of harbor porpoises being killed in the past several years, and only 41% of the fishery complying with regulations, fishermen were notified in March of this year that areas off Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine would be closed to fishing in October and November, a time when harbor porpoise deaths were so high that even if no additional mortality occurred, the numbers were still too high to not harm the population.