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NOAA panel backs sharp curbs on lobster lines that imperil right whales

A North Atlantic right whale breaches the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth.
A North Atlantic right whale breaches the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth.Michael Dwyer/Associated Press/File/Associated Press

PROVIDENCE — In a major step to protect North Atlantic right whales, which are among the planet’s most endangered species, a government-appointed team agreed Friday to measures aimed at reducing the number of whale deaths and serious injuries by 60 percent.

Officials representing each of New England’s coastal states offered different ways of achieving that goal, but the decision could lead to a reduction of as much as half the lobster lines in large portions of the Gulf of Maine, which stretches from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia.

The lines, connecting surface buoys to traps on the seafloor, are responsible for the vast majority of deaths and serious injuries to right whales, scientists say.

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The agreement by the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, a group of federal and state officials, scientists, fishermen, and others appointed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, represents significant concessions from the lobster industry.

“This is a big deal,” said Scott Kraus, chief scientist of marine mammals at the New England Aquarium. “It’s hard for these guys to do this.”

At the same time, lobstermen were spared more draconian options that the team had considered, including closures of large portions of the region’s waters to lobster fishing and requirements that they use expensive gear that would raise traps from the seafloor without ropes.

“This is going to share the pain equally across the region,” said Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association.

Members of the team from Massachusetts agreed to reduce the amount of so-called end lines by as much as 30 percent, while pledging the state would require its fishermen to use weaker rope that is more likely to break in the event of a whale entanglement.

“There’s going to be a lot of rope coming out of the water column,” said Casoni, whose members have already suffered substantial economic losses as a result of efforts to protect right whales.

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Since 2014, lobstermen in much of Cape Cod Bay have been banned from fishing there between Feb. 1 and May 1, or until the whales leave the area. Lobstermen said they were informed this week that the closure would be extended, as some 60 whales remain in the bay.

In Maine, where the lobster catch has surged in recent years and now generates about $500 million a year, officials agreed to reduce their end lines by as much as 50 percent. They also agreed to require their fishermen to use weaker rope.

“The state is committed to attaining these goals,” said Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

While environmental advocates praised the team’s decision, which still has to be approved by NOAA, some were skeptical that the measures would go far enough to protect right whales.

The North Atlantic right whale numbers only about 411, with an estimated 100 breeding females. In recent years, deaths have spiked and births plummeted. In 2017, there were a record 17 deaths; last year, there were an unprecedented zero births.

In an encouraging sign, seven calves have been born this year.

“Reducing and weakening the lines in the water is a start, but we need to go much further, much faster,” said Erica Fuller, a senior staff attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, which has sued NOAA in an effort to force the agency to take more aggressive action to protect right whales. “Appropriate closures and ropeless fishing need to be part of the solution.”

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The team’s decision Friday comes as two right whales this week were discovered entangled in fishing gear in the waters off Cape Cod.

“The proposal set forth this morning represents a reasonable starting point,” said Francine Kershaw, a marine mammal scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group based in New York. “That said, the urgency of this situation cannot be underscored enough. Near-term action needs to be taken in all fishing areas, and perhaps most rapidly in the offshore fishery, where heavier gear poses the most serious risk of mortality and serious injury.”

Representatives of lobstermen who fish farther offshore agreed in principle to reduce their number of end lines and take other measures to reduce the risk to right whales, but they didn’t detail specific reductions.

NOAA officials said they would work with those fishermen to research the most effective measures they should take to reduce the risk of entanglements.

Sharon Young, the marine issues field director for the Humane Society, was the team’s lone dissenting vote.

“I can’t support something if I don’t reasonably think that it will work,” she said. "I’m concerned that this is based on a lot of assumptions, hopes, and wishes that I would love to have come true. But if I don’t think it’s going to work, I can’t raise my hand to support it.”

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NOAA officials said they expect to start working on issuing rules to protect right whales this spring.

They would not say when those rules were likely to be completed, or whether they would mirror the team’s recommendations.

“We are working on developing a timeline,” said Jennifer Goebel, a spokeswoman for the agency.

David Abel’s reporting on right whales was made possible with the support of the Pulitzer Center, as part of its nationwide Connected Coastlines reporting initiative. Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.