ELLSWORTH — The onset of spring means that endangered North Atlantic right whales, humpback whales and other marine mammals will soon be working their way northward 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 and reduce the likelihood of fatal whale entanglements.
The enhanced effort got under way 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 air assets.
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 affect the removal of illegally rigged and improperly marked gear in an effort to decrease whale entanglements.
“This will be primarily an educational effort,” P.O. Nicole J. Groll, one of the district’s media relations staff, said 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 display evidence of entanglement such as wounds.
In at least seven of whale fatality cases documented last year, fishing gear entanglements and ship strikes were deemed to be the principal causes of death.
With millions of lobster traps in the water off the Maine coast, entanglement has become a huge concern for the state’s lobster fishermen and the Department of Marine Resources.
“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,” Col. Jon Cornish, chief of the Marine Patrol, said 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 three-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.