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Protecting right whales: Advocates, fishermen say proposal needs more work

By David Pendered

A fatal collision that killed a baby whale and injured his mother in waters south of Brunswick is the latest impetus for advocates of whales to respond by the March 1 deadline for public comments on proposed federal rules intended to protect right whales.

This baby whale that washed ashore in St. Augustine, Fl. died from injuries sustained when he was struck by a 54-foot sport fishing vessel that reported the collision. Credit:FWC/Tucker Joenz, NOAA Fisheries Permit #18786

The infant and his mother, named Infinity, were struck Feb. 12, off St. Augustine Inlet, Fl. The captain of a 54-foot sport fishing vessel reported that he’d driven over a whale. The boat began taking on water and the captain grounded the boat to prevent her from sinking, according to a report by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. No human injuries were reported.

The 22-foot-long carcass of the infant whale washed ashore at Anastasia State Park. The mother, known in scientific circles as Catalog #3230, was spotted off the coast of South Georgia on Feb. 16, with “two new cuts on her left side suggestive of a vessel strike,” according to a report from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

This incident helped fuel an attendance of more than 300 at last week’s virtual public hearing on the proposed revision of a federal regulation regarding the protection of whales from commercial fishing gear. Attention to the plight of right whales is increasing as their numbers dwindle. Fewer than 350 of the mammals are thought to exist, according to a report issued Wednesday by the New England Aquarium, which has studied right whales for 40 years.

Spotted off Georgia in January, this close up image shows the commercial fishing line tangled around the tail of North American right whale No. 1803. File/Credit: Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute Taken under NOAA research permit 18786

Monday, March 1 is the deadline for written public comments on the proposed revision, known as “Taking of Marine Mammals Incidental to Commercial Fishing Operations; Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan Regulations; etc.” The full report and comment section from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency is available here.

The changes are intended to protect whales from being entangled in commercial fishing gear in New England. Lobster pots are one culprit, because whales get tied up in the line from the lobster trap to the buoy that marks its spot.

The rule changes were proposed at the end of the Trump administration, on Dec. 31, 2020. Now, a number of commercial fishermen and whale advocates contend the government needs to withdraw and revise the regulations.

Commercial lobster fisherman Jarod Bray writes in one of his three public comments that whales need greater protection, but the proposed regulations are not the answer.

Jarod Bray, commercial fisherman

Jarod Bray, whose worked 20 years as a commercial fisherman off Maine, says the proposed regulations to protect whales won’t solve the problem and should be revised. Credit: Facebook.com

Bray writes that he’s fished the waters off Maine for 20 years. He suggests that whales be tagged with geo trackers so that ones that are entangled, such as the 33-year-old male spotted off Georgia in January, could be located and released. Tags could help boat helmsmen track whales and avoid striking them, he wrote:

  • “Tracking whales would save their lives giving fisherman and ships the info to get out of their way. Also the ability to find and help any whale that has been entangled in fishing gear from Canada or elsewhere.”

Gib Brogan, senior campaign manager for Oceana, a marine advocacy group, says the proposals need to be revised. During a Feb. 9 virtual meeting, Brogan said whales need greater protections than are offered in the current proposal:

Gib Brogan

  • “The proposal won’t do enough for the right whale. The proposal has given a tremendous amount of weight to the views of individuals involved here, and little to the people involved who are outside the fishing industry.
  • “Half measures aren’t going to do it here. Whales are already in too precarious a situation for us to take baby steps. New regulations don’t come along very often, and we need the government to step up and be bold stewards of whales.
  • “Some plans for whales lead to full protection in 2030. These whales don’t have 10 years.”

This is how NOAA describes the proposed rules:

  • “NMFS proposes to amend the regulations implementing the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan to reduce the incidental mortality and serious injury to North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis), fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus), and humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in northeast commercial lobster and crab trap/pot fisheries to meet the goals of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.
  • “In addition, this action also proposes a small revision to Federal regulations implemented under the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commissions’ Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Lobster to increase the maximum length of a lobster trap trawl groundline. This action is necessary to reduce the risks to North Atlantic right whales and other large whales associated with the presence of fishing gear in waters used by these animals.”

 

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David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.

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