Wednesday, November 09, 2011

{Press} Off-shore slow speed zone aims to add protection for whales

Gloucester Times | Richard Gaines | November 8, 2011

"Seeking to add new protections for the habitat's endangered right whales, NOAA Fisheries Service on Monday announced a vessel speed restriction zone in the vicinity of Jeffreys Ledge, which runs from about 10 miles due east of Cape Ann north-northeast for about 30 miles.

The action comes one week after the Humane Society of the United States and other environmental groups filed suit against NOAA Fisheries, asking a federal court in Massachusetts to hold the NOAA Fisheries accountable for continuing to allow four federal fisheries to injure and kill endangered whales, including the northern right whale.

NOAA Fisheries said there are less probably less than 400 northern right whales in today's ocean.

The suit argues that allowing fixed gear and ropes in the lobster, dogfish, monkfish and multispecies fisheries — ranging along the entire Atlantic Coast south to the Carolinas — puts whales in danger.

Whales and porpoises entangle in lines to pots and traps, and in gillnets that hang from the surface to the bottom with small mesh.

"Already, 2011 has seen the death of two right whales from entanglement, as well as at least seven additional new entanglement reports for right whales," the Humane Society said in a prepared statement. "Since June alone, eight endangered humpback whales have been reported with first-time entanglements.""

In a related development, organizers have filed appropriate language with the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office for a binding referendum in the 2012 ballot that would bar the use of fixed fishing gear in state waters — the three miles from shore to the inner border of the 200-mile U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone.

NOAA Fisheries said the speed zone limit would remain in effect through Nov. 16.

The voluntary speed zone for boats in the Jeffreys Ledge area was set at 10 knots. The zone itself was outlined to run from latitude 43 degrees, 26 minutes north, to 42 degrees, 39 minutes north, and 070 degrees, 41 minutes west to 069 degrees, 37 minutes west.

Like Stellwagen Bank, which Jeffreys intersects at its southern extension, Jeffreys is also a bank of relatively shallow water — with depths of 100 to 180 feet, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It is covered with boulders, gravel and ridges that resemble terminal moraines, droppings from glacial ice at the forward edge.

At the western edge is a well-defined scarp — a steep sandy slope of 75 to 100 feet, somewhat like an underwater sand dune.

The fish, fishermen and whales that prey on fish tend to gather on Jeffreys no less than they do on Stellwagen.

"Mariners are requested to avoid or transit at 10 knots or less inside the following areas where persistent aggregations of right whales have been sighted," NOAA Fisheries' announcement said

Sponsors of the initiative petition that would ask voters to bar fixed gear for fishing and lobstering from state waters need to file 68,911 signatures from certified voters by Dec. 7. That would compel the Legislature to either approve the ban on or before the first Wednesday in May, or see it go on the 2012 state ballot.

The northern right whale migrates from along the Atlantic Coast heading north in the spring and south in the fall. The animals are known as "right" whales because they were the most inshore of the great whales and in the 18th and 19th centuries were harvested first, and most easily. They were the right whales to the whalers.

Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3464, or at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com."

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