Endangered right whales in Cape Cod Bay overstay welcome in eyes of some

Nearly half of the world’s population of North Atlantic right whales were feeding in Cape Cod Bay last week. Entanglements threaten their population. Photo: Courtesy of NOAA

A large number of North Atlantic right whales, the most endangered whales in the world, have for weeks been enjoying the feeding grounds inside Cape Cod Bay, much to the delight of whale watchers.

Close to 200 of the estimated total population of 500 right whales were counted inside the bay last week feeding on an abundance of plankton, according to Wicked Local. They don't seem to want to leave.

But one group wishes they would.

For the last three years, lobster fishermen have been banned from setting lobster pots from February 1 through the end of April to protect the right whales from getting entangled.

With so many right whales still in the bay, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries announced the ban would be extended through Sunday, May 7.

Shaded area of Cape Cod Bay is closed to lobster fishing through May 7. Photo: Courtesy of Mass. Division of Marine Fisheries.

Sightings of right whales in Cape Cod Bay in April. Photo: Courtesy of NOAA

Not surprisingly, lobster fishermen are not happy.

Plymouth, which sits on Cape Cod Bay, is said to be the second-most productive port in the state in pounds of lobsters landed annually.

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"It's pretty depressing," Stoney Holmes, a lobster fisherman for 43 years, told Old Colony, according to Wicked Local. "We have been off since the beginning of February, and now we have to wait another week. It's starting to take its toll. I need to go to work."

The leading causes of deaths of the endangered right whales are entanglements and collisions with ships.

"They lost a whale to a ship strike the other day, blunt force trauma, but I don't see them shutting down anyone else but us," Holmes said.

On the other side of the coin, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation organization praised the decision by the state.

"The closure extension…was thoughtfully considered and was based on the continued sightings of right whales within Cape Cod Bay," WDC executive director Regina Asmutis-Silvia told Old Colony.

"While efforts to reduce ship strikes have substantially reduced risk from that threat, efforts to reduce risks in fishing gear entanglements have not yet met their goals. Entanglements in fishing gear are of concern both from a serious injury/mortality and sub-lethal injury perspective."

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Asmutis-Silvia sees progress, praises the cooperation of the fishermen, but says there's more work to be done.

WDC, fishermen, conservation groups, scientists and state and federal agencies cooperated on what was called the "Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team" and developed new rules and equipment to help protect whales. But there could be more to come.

Despite the latest measures, Charles Mayo, the director of right whale ecology at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Mass, told the Associated Press the global population of North Atlantic right whales is slowly declining.

"The whole story on right whales is very simple arithmetic: How many die and how many are born?" Mayo told AP. "The birth rate this year is extraordinarily low. We've only seen four whales born in the North Atlantic. And the mortality rate is up."

Mayo also claimed that 80 percent of the population of right whales bears entanglement scars.

"People think, 'Oh, this is good stuff' [when seeing so many in the bay]," Mayo said. "But we're looking at animals that spend a lot of time in waters where there's a lot of ship traffic, places that have a lot of fishing gear. Look at their fate during an entire year and it doesn't look so good."

Meanwhile, in the balance rests the livelihoods of lobster fishermen.