12, 1999 NOAA announced today that the federal government
is publishing a plan
to protect endangered whales off the Atlantic Coast from entanglement
in fishing gear.
"This is a good plan that
makes our waters safer for whales, but it is not the last word
on protecting whales," said Andrew Rosenberg, deputy director
of NOAA's National Marine Fisheries
Service. "The plan will continue to evolve as we learn
more about how whales become entangled in gear and how fishing
practices can be modified to prevent entanglements."
The plan calls for a continuation
of seasonal closures of some fishing grounds in the Southeast
United States and New England. It makes some changes to gear
restrictions already in place for lobster pot and gillnet gear.
It also calls for research into whale behavior and fishing gear
and requires continued work on an existing whale disentanglement
The reduction of human-whale
interactions is presently managed under an interim plan, which
was developed with input from the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction
Team. The main changes from the interim plan involve exempted
waters, gear marking, and some changes in gear requirements.
The plan, formally known as the
Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan, focuses on protecting
right whales, the most endangered of the large whales. Scientists
estimate there are 300 or fewer right whales left in the North
Atlantic. The plan also protects humpback and fin whales (also
endangered) and minke whales (not endangered).
Whales that get caught in fishing
gear are sometimes able to disentangle themselves, but some entanglements
cause serious injury or death. Between 1991 and 1997, NOAA Fisheries
confirmed four reports of right whales seriously injured by entanglement.
In addition, entanglement caused or contributed to the death
of two other right whales. With so few right whales left in the
North Atlantic, a single human-caused mortality could affect
the species' chances of survival.
The regulations published in
the Federal Register reaffirm the five main elements of the interim
plan that has been in effect since 1997:
(1) Critical right whale habitats
are closed to some types of fishing gear during times when right
whales are likely to be present.
(2) Some fishing practices that
increase risk of whale entanglement are prohibited -- leaving
inactive gear in the water, for example.
(3) NOAA Fisheries will continue
to fund gear research to develop gear less likely to entangle
whales e.g., gear with "weak links" that break
when a whale pulls on the gear but do not break when fishermen
haul the gear.
(4) NOAA Fisheries will continue
outreach efforts to inform fishermen of the entanglement problem
and to ask for their help in designing whale-safe gear.
(5) Until safer gear is available,
NOAA Fisheries will continue to operate a Whale Disentanglement
Network to locate entangled whales and to remove gear from them.
In addition, inshore waters on
the coast of Maine that were exempted under the interim plan
are included in the final plan because public comments indicated
that fishermen set gear on both sides of the line. Also, right
whales are known to move through waters on both sides of the
interim plan's exemption line.
Gear marking requirements were
eliminated for most waters. Gear marking now will be required
only in areas where the risk of entanglement is highest: right
whale critical habitat areas, the southeast observer area, Stellwagen
Bank and Jeffreys Ledge.
The plan includes menus of gear
restrictions from which lobstermen and gillnetters can choose
one or more options that make their gear safer for whales. An
"anchor" option on the gillnet menu in the interim
plan is removed in the final plan because it could make it more
difficult for whales to escape an entanglement.
The effort to involve the fishing
industry in gear research and whale disentanglement began under
the interim plan and will continue under the final plan. In 1998,
NOAA Fisheries' whale plan outreach coordinator Glenn Salvador
enlisted more than 300 fishermen to help with disentanglement.
Salvador also worked with Gulf of Maine fishermen to test gear
ideas on the water. Fishermen who have gear ideas or who are
willing to test gear ideas can contact him at 207-636-2766.
The regulations will be published
in the Federal Register on Feb. 16, 1999. They take effect on
the 1st of April.