From: Beth Daley, The Boston Globe
Published September 21, 2004 12:00 AM

New England environmentalists, lobstermen gear up to save whales, livelihood

The endangered North Atlantic right whale has virtually no natural enemies, but for 100 years it has found a foe in fishing lines.

Nearly three-quarters of these leviathans have scars from getting tangled in fishing gear, and some have died from their wounds.

Now environmentalists are hoping the cold waters off New England may become one of the safest areas in the world for whales. With nearly $1 million from the federal government and a conservation group, more than 300 Massachusetts lobstermen have agreed to buy fishing gear that keeps a common type of lobster line away from where whales swim and feed. Some 3,250 miles of lobster rope from Massachusetts will be removed and replaced in coming months, representing hundred of thousands of traps.

"It's a significant cost to the industry, but it's a significant savings to the whales," said Gary Ostrom, vice president of the Massachusetts Lobstermen's Association.

Lobstermen have agreed to pay, on average, $1,000 to $1,500 each, about quarter of the total cost of the new gear, to outfit their traps with a heavier and more expensive rope that connects traps by lying along the seafloor, instead of floating upwards. Worried that encroaching regulation on the lobster industry would harm fishermen's livelihoods, Ostrom said the industry agreed to the change in hope of "getting out in front" of rules.

Every year there are dozens of suspected entanglements of all types of whales.

Though other whale species are hurt by fishing lines, scientists are particularly concerned about North Atlantic right whales because there are only about 300 left in the world and because the whales tend to feed with their giant mouths open, taking in food and potentially fishing line.

There is no way to tell whose fishing lines ensnare the whales. But many whales come to waters off New England to feed in the spring and summer, and researchers believe that local gear, including lines from some lobster traps, accounts for at least some of the entanglements.

In this type of lobstering, groups of traps are connected by roughly 90-foot lengths of buoyant plastic rope that can float as high as 18 feet off the seafloor. Whales can get entangled in the loops when diving to feed, cinching the rope into their mouths, tails, and fins. Three years ago, a North Atlantic right whale dubbed Churchill died a public death after a marine line caused an infection in his jaw and scientists failed in attempts to remove it.

Some lobstermen have been using the new equipment in waters managed by the state Division of Marine Fisheries. For almost two years, lobstermen in Cape Cod Bay have been required to use the sinking trap lines, and federal fisheries service now requires the lines in certain areas of the ocean during critical times when right whales congregate.

Many fishermen spent yesterday morning dumping their older rope at the Duxbury Transfer Station. Other dumping sites will be in Gloucester and Yarmouth. The fishermen then receive vouchers to buy the heavier rope, made with material that includes nylon that forces it to sink.

US Representative William D. Delahunt and Senator Edward M. Kennedy secured $660,000 earlier this year by earmarking an appropriation in the National Marine Fisheries Service budget that requires a matching amount to be raised elsewhere.

The lobstermen's contribution make up a significant portion of that matching payment, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare has raised about $150,000 in private donations and is raising another $150,000 to $200,000 for the rest of the program.

"This is a really worthy cause," said Erin Heskett, manager of the group's lobster project.

While whale specialists praised the new program, they said more needs to done to protect whales, especially the endangered North Atlantic right whale. Another lobster line that stretches from traps to surface buoys needs to be modified to better protect whales, they said.

"I am encouraged by it," said Amy Knowlton, a research scientist at the New England Aquarium who studies whales. "It's a gear modification that everyone believes is an important change to make. But there is a lot of work to be done."

(c) 2004, The Boston Globe. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.

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