Tuesday, June 28, 2011

{Press} Government discusses right whale safety

The Brunswich News | Anna Ferguson Hall | June 28, 2011

"New federal rules may be in the offing to protect right whales from the dangers of swimming in waters where commercial fishing is taking place.

The National Marines Fisheries Service is pondering the adoption of rules that govern the type of gear that can be used in certain zones, as well as what marking must be used to identify equipment.

Federal fishery regulators have scheduled 15 public meetings on the East Coast to collect input in the development of new regulations aimed to prevent endangered or threatened whales, such as the right, humpback and finback whales, from becoming entangled in fishing gear, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association said.

The issue of entanglement is a major problem for whales in waters off the East Coast. Talks about ramping up regulations to protect the aquatic mammals have been in the works for some time, said Clay George, a wildlife biologist with the Georgia Natural Resources Coastal Resources Division.

The Atlantic Large Whale Take Team, made up of biologists and conservationists with NOAA, formed a plan to help curb instances of deaths and injuries caused whales bound by fishing gear.

The official new rules will be molded with input reeled in during a series of 15 public meetings, the first of which is set for July 11 in East Machias, Maine. Meetings in Georgia and Florida are set for Aug. 29 in Jacksonville, and Aug. 24 in Garden City, near Savannah.

New federal rules to protect right whales will be the topic of a series of 15 public meetings in Atlantic coastal states. (Provided photo/File)

One idea being discussed is increasing marking regulations on fishing gear so fisheries can be held more responsible, George said. Other suggested regulations include placing greater restrictions on gear left in water for long periods of time. That would include limiting the number of lobster nets a fishery can use.

The major measures and rules being discussed will likely not have a large impact on fisheries off the Georgia coast. For the most part, regulations will be geared toward fisheries in the Northeast, such as lobster catchers, George said.

Along the southern coastline, the only fisheries that would be impacted are those that use buoy lines or gillnets for catching blue crabs and black sea bass.

"These rules will have the most impact in the northern sates where the whales live on a more full-time basis," George said.

Regulations approved by NOAA following the series of scoping meetings will go into effect in 2014.

Right whales migrate south in the late winter and early spring months to give birth. In the past decade or so, there's been an increase in whale deaths due to boat strikes and entanglements in fishing gear. This past whaling season, though, George found encouraging news. Efforts started several years ago have proven beneficial. The total right whale population had risen 2 percent and southern right whale populations by 5 to 6 percent, he said.

"That is less than we believed it would rise, but it is not decline," George said. "The numbers could be better, but at least the numbers are going up."

Learn more:

A schedule of public meetings and locations can be found on the NOAA web site: www.nero.noaa.gov."

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