By Stephen Rappaport and Liz Graves
ELLSWORTH — The onset of spring means that endangered North Atlantic right whales, humpback whales and other marine mammals soon will be working their way northwards through the Gulf of Maine.
Last week, the Coast Guard announced that units from its First District in New England would join a stronger effort by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Law Enforcement to “detect and deter” illegally placed fishing gear. The goal of the effort is to reduce the likelihood of harmful or fatal whale entanglements.
The enhanced effort got underway May 1 and will run through June 30. It will include more frequent air and sea patrols in seasonal gear closure areas by NOAA law enforcement personnel and Coast Guard patrol boats and aircraft.
Headquartered in Boston, the First District covers the area between northern New Jersey and Maine. Under the initiative announced last week, Coast Guard units throughout the district, but primarily north and east of Cape Cod, will step up at-sea inspections of unattended lobster and gillnet gear. The goal is to identify and effect the removal of illegally rigged and improperly marked gear in an effort to decrease whale entanglements.
“This will be primarily an educational effort,” said Petty Officer Nicole J. Groll, one of the district’s media relations staff, last week. “We’re looking to identify gear, not at gear seizures.”
Right whale deaths are a significant concern to scientists, who estimate that only about 450 of the animals survive in the western North Atlantic. Last year, NOAA documented five right whale deaths in U.S. waters and a dozen more in Canadian waters.
Many if not most whale fatalities are a consequence, scientists say, of either ship strikes or entanglement with fishing gear, and many living whales have wounds and scars from entanglement.
But Maine lobstermen say they’ve gotten the short end of the stick, having to follow ever-changing requirements and restrictions when most of the whale fatalities seem to happen elsewhere.
The Maine Department of Marine Resources and Maine Lobstermen’s Association work closely with NOAA on whale protection efforts. Both groups have representatives on the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team that works to design and implement rules to protect whales.
“Maine Marine Patrol partners with NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement, enabling increased enforcement capacity on federal priorities under what is known as a ‘joint enforcement agreement’,” said Col. Jon Cornish, chief of the Marine Patrol, last week. “Gear and marking requirements aimed at reducing serious injury and mortality of whales are a high priority in the Northeast and for Maine Marine Patrol. The Maine Marine Patrol works closely with our partners in the U.S. Coast Guard and NOAA to ensure that fishermen continue to comply with these regulations.”
Whether last week’s announcement effects a change in Coast Guard policy relating to its efforts in state waters — inside the 3-mile limit — is unclear. The service “did not reach out to us,” Cornish said.
“We work with our state partners in doing safety checks in state waters and enforce the 500-yard safety zone” around whales established by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Groll said last week.