New buoy line changes benefit whales

The Marine Fisheries Advisory Commission rules will affect lobster and crab fishery.

Recommendations by the Department of Marine Fisheries for new buoy marking rules.

Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries Advisory Commission unanimously approved a proposed plan for new buoy line marking rules for lobster and crab fishermen. The buoy line markings proposal was first introduced to the commission in January, which took recommendations from a public hearing in May. 

According to Bob Glenn, a member of the Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF), these markings are important for the protection of the North Atlantic right whales in Massachusetts waters. In 2020, DMF provided comments to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) saying Massachusetts should have its fisheries, specifically lobster and crab fisheries, listed separately, based on its “very conservative” management program to protect the whales. The list is usually published in September or October, which is why the buoy line markings proposal is being pushed for this year. However, the NMFS was not willing to provide a separate designation, because the gear Massachusetts fishermen use was not different enough from other states in New England and the Mid-Atlantic. 

The Center for Coastal Studies spotted 89 right whales in March in the Cape Cod Bay area. The whales had migrated elsewhere by May 13, allowing fisheries to open a little earlier than usual. Daniel McKiernan, director of the DMF, said these whales are routinely photographed via aerial surveys within a range from Plymouth to Provincetown. McKiernan said in the past 12 years, there have been only two nonlethal, off-season entanglement cases in Massachusetts. According to a risk reduction model DMF received from NMFS called a decision support tool, the estimates say DMF’s efforts since 2015 have helped reduce marine life mortality by 85 to 95 percent. 

According to the World Wildlife Fund, the North Atlantic right whale is an endangered species. Fishing buoy ropes can be a risk to other endangered or vulnerable species, such as the leatherback turtle

Proposed regulations from the federal government were not good enough to fully allow discrimination of Massachusetts waters from other states’ and federal zones. DMF set out to make a proposal for the new buoy line markings rule. McKiernan said the buoy line markings succeed in achieving two goals other than protecting the right whales. One is helping those untangling whales to find the original fishery the ropes came from. The other is exonerating Massachusetts from charges caused by ropes that originate from other states. “This is the future of the game,” said McKiernan. 

Commission vice chair Michael Pierdinock asked what would happen if a whale dies in Massachusetts waters from a rope originating outside the state. Would this still hit Massachusetts? According to McKiernan, it would not. Gear-making schemes in the U.S. are not specific enough to differentiate between jurisdictions. Assumptions can be made based on the rope’s appearance. For example, a ⅝-inch rope would be larger than coastal fishermen use, although McKiernan says the conservation community will probably say, “Well, you can’t prove that.” Any takes, especially serious injury or mortality, are attributed to the U.S. lobster fisheries in the New England and Mid-Atlantic designations. If the gear didn’t have Massachusetts-style markings, then Massachusetts does not take the hit after the buoy marking rule changes are implemented. 

McKiernan said that finding the origins of ropes also allows better methods than “broad-brush approaches to conservation and further risk reduction. We can be more surgical.”

The plan is to have Massachusetts lobster and crab fishermen in state waters “mark our [Massachusetts] gear with a two-foot red mark every 60 feet,” said Glenn. There will also be a slightly different marking method for different state water categories, and black markings when fishermen are in federal waters. This system has already been vetted by NMFS, and was made with consultation from people in the commercial fishing industry. Glenn said a cost-effective system will be put in place so that it isn’t too expensive to fishermen or the lobster and crab industry. The hope is to work with the industry. The season opens on June 15. Glenn said the plan is to give student lobster permit holders four coils of rope, which he says is enough as these fishermen are only allowed at most 25 pots, or lobster/crab traps. 

Commission member Arthur (“Sooky”) Sawyer said fishermen can probably use a “candy cane” pattern rope as markings. Commission chair Raymond Kane Jr. suggested other possible marking options, such as tape or paint. 

Commission member Bill Amaru said he received an email from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that they were checking the buoy line markings with a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). Glenn said NOAA did take pictures with the ROV, but they would only be able to inspect a few dozen or less. New England waters have strong currents and are murky, making underwater investigations difficult at times. Glenn said NOAA might not have a vessel capable of hauling the necessary gear. He said NOAA may also be trying to avoid buying an extra vessel, such as a lobster boat, for the inspections. 

Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, said the buoy marking rules would affect lobster fishermen in the same way, regardless of location. The lobster fishermen would need to mark their gear “more aggressively” to show they are equipment from Massachusetts. Casoni said that there are about 100 lobster fishermen on Martha’s Vineyard and in the surrounding fishery areas.