What is happening?
In response to the high number of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales along the coast of Massachusetts, the state of Massachusetts announced two emergency regulations to provide additional protections to the whales. In an effort to reduce the risk of entanglements, the closure to trap-pot fisheries has been extended an additional week, delaying the opening of the lobster fishery in Cape Cod Bay until May 7th. Additionally, the State has implemented an emergency speed rule for all vessels transiting the waters in and around Cape Cod Bay to reduce the risk of vessel collisions.
The leading causes of death to right whales are entanglements in fishing gear and collisions with vessels and Cape Cod Bay remains one of the few habitats where right whales consistently aggregate seasonally. The unprecedented loss of at least 18 endangered North Atlantic right whales since last April has sounded the alarm of extinction for the species. These deaths represent a loss 4% of the entire species of which fewer than 450 individuals remain. Research indicates that the species has been in decline since 2010 and, to date, no new calves have been born to the population during the current calving season.
In the past two weeks, more than 100 right whales have been sighted in Massachusetts waters, including in and around Boston’s busy shipping lanes. Earlier this week, staff from Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) witnessed a boat traveling at high speed through a group of at least six feeding right whales within the marked channel for vessels transiting Plymouth’s outer harbor.
What has WDC done?
WDC and its conservation partners were instrumental in the implementation of the current federally-mandated 10kt speed restriction for large vessels (>65 feet/20m) which remains active in Cape Cod Bay through May 15th. However, the new Massachusetts emergency regulation further reduces risk by requiring vessels under 65 feet (20m) to slow to 10kts during the same time period. WDC publicly testified in support of the state’s proposal to include small vessels given that at least six right whales are known to have been struck and injured by vessels under 65’ (20m) in length in the Cape Cod Bay area, including a young female killed by a small vessel strike last April.
While the rule is aimed at protecting endangered whales, the speed restriction also enhances human safety. Small vessel strikes not only risk injuring whales, the vessels themselves are at higher risk of damage should a strike occur. Small vessels involved in whale strikes have suffered cracked hulls, damage to propellers and rudders, and blown engines. Passenger injuries have also been reported. In one example, a 30-foot vessel that struck a right whale in 2009 resulted in a passenger being thrown into the air and landing in the cockpit. The damage to the vessel itself was significant and required the passengers to be rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard.
Good job, Massachusetts!
Massachusetts has consistently been proactive in its efforts to protect North Atlantic right whales. They were the first state to implement a regulation requiring that vessels maintain a minimum 500 yard approach distance, the first to require sinking groundline in its fixed gear fisheries, and they remain the only state with a fishery closure aimed at protecting this species.
“We applaud Massachusetts for prioritizing the protections of endangered right whales and we acknowledge the impact these measures have on its fisheries and commercial vessel operations” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, WDC-NA executive director. “We encourage those who buy lobster to preferentially choose those fished from Massachusetts where restrictions to reduce entanglements and vessel strikes are the most comprehensive in the U.S.”
Please consider donating to WDC’s Fighting Fund so we can keep giving North Atlantic right whales a fighting chance!