Under the DAM rule, which
is part of the fisheries service whale protection plan, the agency must
close or require gear modifications in an area when three or more right
whales are seen within a 75 square mile radius.
Just 300 North Atlantic right
whales remain, and scientists warn that deaths due to ship strikes and
entanglement are contributing to their decline. At least two right whales
have died in the last five years after being entangled in fishing gear,
and 10 others have disappeared after entanglements.
On April 19th, David Gouveia,
marine mammal coordinator for the Northeast Region, sent an e-mail to
"interested parties" with advance notice of the DAM closure,
but most fishermen learned about it when they received a letter dated
April 25th. The order was published in the Federal Register on April
26th and the closure took effect on April 28th. This gave fishermen
two days to remove their gear. Mary Colligan, NMFS Assistant Regional
Administrator for Protected Species, says three whales were in the area
when the closure went into effect on April 28th. The closure ended on
Ron Hemeon is an Essex lobsterman
who had 800 traps set in the DAM area. He received official notice of
the closure just two days before he was to have his traps out of the
area. Hemeon moved a handful of traps to the outer edge of the closed
area, but could do little more to comply with the order.
"I didn’t really
do much about it because there wasn’t too much I could do,"
he says. "It took a month to get the gear set up out there in the
According to Hemeon, other
fishermen were also in the same predicament. "I had to travel through
the area almost every day during those two weeks," he says, "and
I didn’t see a lot of gear being moved."
The Coast Guard was charged
with enforcement of the DAM, but Hemeon says when he saw Coast Guard
officials in the area during the closure, he was not approached.
The fisheries service implemented the DAM plan in January, in spite
of opposition from fishermen, scientists, environmentalists, and state
fisheries regulators. NMFS was under court order to implement a right
whale protection plan after settling lawsuits brought against the agency
last year by the Humane Society of the U.S. and the Conservation Law
NMFS officials insist that,
although the DAM model is not perfect, it is an effective management
"I do think it’s
effective," Colligan says. "The limitations are in that it’s
a reactive process. We understood the limitations, but it’s just
one tool in the toolbox."
In addition to the DAM rule,
the current right whale protection plan includes gear modification requirements,
Critical Habitat Areas, and Seasonal Area Management Areas (SAMs), areas
where whales go more frequently and additional closures and gear modifications
are required. Colligan says DAMs allow the fisheries service to protect
whales outside the SAMs and Critical Habitat Areas. However, nearly
everyone involved in the process charges that the DAM rule is unworkable
and endangers both whales and fishermen.
"It’s just impossible
in so many ways to expect people to move in two days, Hemeon says. "And
they’re not even giving the other rules a chance to work."
He has complied with the new whale-friendly gear requirements by investing
in sinking groundline, weak links and lighter buoy lines. In addition
he is using longer trawls to minimize the number of vertical lines in
Bill Adler, Executive Director
of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, says that because
the order came early in the season, only a couple dozen lobstermen had
gear in the area when the DAM closure was announced, and most of these
were only fishing four or five hundred traps, but even so, few fishermen
could comply with the closure.
"The fishermen don’t
like to be illegal," Adler says, "but nobody could get all
their gear out in time."
Scientists also criticize
the plan, saying right whales can swim more than fifty miles in a day
as they wander in search of plankton patches to feed on. So the whales
that trigger a DAM closure could be hundreds of miles away by the time
the closure goes into effect two weeks later. In addition, the most
efficient way for fishermen to comply with the DAM rule is to move the
gear just outside the closed area, leaving a "fence" of vertical
lines for animals moving from the area, increasing the risk of entanglement.
Lobstermen and gillnetters,
the groups most impacted by whale regulations, are frustrated with the
whale protection process, saying that ineffective rules like DAM destroy
trust and leave the fisheries open to additional regulations or closures
if whales continue to die from entanglement. Many are pushing for coast-wide,
year-round gear modifications to protect whales wherever they are and
to put an end to complex regulations and dynamic area closures, a move
both Adler and Hemeon say they would support. Fishermen also charge
that the federal government is placing more of the burden for whale
protection on the backs of fishermen, while the shipping industry has
been subject to very little regulation to prevent ship strikes.
As of this writing, fifty
right whales are feeding in the Great South Channel Critical Habitat
Area and may spread out from there if plankton concentrations change
as the season progresses.
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