FEDS PROPOSE EXPANDED USE OF PINGERS AND AREA CLOSURES TO PROTECT HARBOR PORPOISES

PorpoisesNOAA Fisheries seeks public comments on proposed regulations requiring pingers, gear restrictions, and fishing closures in Gulf of Maine and Mid-Atlantic waters

By changing when, where and how gillnetters fish in the Northeast, federal officials believe they can protect harbor porpoise stocks and allow gillnetters to keep their nets in the water. Biologists with NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service say the proposed actions will prevent approximately 1,600 of the 2,000 annual harbor porpoise deaths currently caused by gillnet fishing in the Gulf of Maine and Mid-Atlantic waters.

The proposal released in September by NOAA Fisheries would require expanded use of sound-emitting devices called "pingers" in the Gulf of Maine and gear modifications in the Mid-Atlantic. In both areas, the plan calls for periodic fishing closures of some waters during periods when gillnet fishers are inadvertently catching (or "taking") large numbers of harbor porpoises.

Harbor porpoises are found throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Gulf of Maine, where they encounter gillnets, become entangled and drown. It is estimated that approximately 1,800 of these small marine mammals are taken annually by gillnet fishers in the Gulf of Maine and another 200 are taken in Mid-Atlantic coastal waters.

NOAA Fisheries has determined that the harbor porpoise stock can withstand the loss of 483 animals per year to commercial fisheries. The proposed regulations are expected to reduce harbor porpoise bycatch to approximately 300 animals per year in the Gulf of Maine and fewer than 50 in the Mid-Atlantic.

The regulations for gulf waters differ somewhat from earlier regulations proposed in August 1997. Under the new proposed regulations, pingers would be required in additional areas and for longer periods of time. The new regulations, however, include only one closure in addition to the closures recommended under the previous plan and closures already in effect under Framework 25 of the Multispecies (groundfish) Management Plan. The one new proposed closure would be an offshore area known as Cashes Ledge, which would be closed to gillnet fishing in February.

The Mid-Atlantic component of the proposed regulations includes two sets of gear restrictions -- one for large mesh and one for small mesh gear. There are also some one-month closures to all gear in some Mid-Atlantic waters.

In field tests, gillnets deployed with properly placed and operating pingers have taken far fewer harbor porpoises than nets without working pingers. The proposed regulations would require fishers who will use pingers to attend training and certification sessions on the use of the technology. The regulations also call for scientific research to monitor the effectiveness of pingers, assess technological questions, and explore the effect of pingers on other animals.

NOAA Fisheries is seeking public comments on the proposed regulations. Comments can be submitted until Oct. 12 to Donna Wieting in the Office of Protected Resources, NMFS, 1315 East West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910-3226. The proposed regulations are available in the Federal Register and from the NMFS' Office of Protected Resources (301-713-2322).

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