WhalesWashington, February 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 network.

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.


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