Lobstermen promote whale safety

BOSTON, MA Lobsters caught in state waters will be given the bands, stamped "Massachusetts" and depicting whale tails, to highlight the state's efforts to make the seas safer for whales by requiring lobstermen to use rope to connect their traps that rests on the ocean floor, rather than line that floats and could entangle whales.

The campaign is being led by environmental groups, including Ocean Conservancy, and the state Division of Marine Fisheries. Its backers hope to decrease the risk of entanglement -- the second-leading cause of human-related whale deaths behind ship strikes -- and to add to the appeal of Massachusetts-caught lobster.

"Other areas fight these mandates. We want the public to know not all fishermen are in that category," said Bernie Feeney, a 60-year-old Boston lobsterman.

Lobsters are caught in traps strung together and attached to buoys on each end. Whale advocates say when floating line is used, it creates arcs of rope between the traps that can entangle whales.

Between 2002 and 2006, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirmed 145 whale entanglements along the East Coast and in adjacent Canadian waters, and 21 deaths due to entanglement among large whale species -- which include the right whale. The right whale population stands at only 350 to 400.

Massachusetts, which made the change to sinking rope in 2007, is the only state to draft such measures. But federal regulations will require many East Coast lobstermen and fishermen to begin using sinking rope starting in October.

Maine, by far the nation's largest lobster harvester, is resisting calls for change. Lobstermen in Maine, which pulled in $297 million in lobster revenues in 2006, compared to second-place Massachusetts' $52 million, say sinking rope wouldn't work on their rocky ocean bottom because it would fray quickly and become easily snagged.

The cost of changing to sinking rope isn't cheap, either. Feeney, the Boston lobsterman, said he spent $11,000 on new rope and other required gear changes.

Federal regulators have proposed a six-month delay -- to April 2009 -- in its sinking line requirement, and Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, said she hopes that's enough time for Maine to get its waters exempted.

She said Massachusetts' green band wrongly implies lobstermen in other states aren't as concerned with conservation.

"I don't have a problem with Massachusetts saying, 'We're doing a great thing,' because they are," she said. "What I don't like is the implication that other people are not."

Bill Adler, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen's Association, said the green bands were meant to promote Massachusetts' efforts, not take a shot at other states.

The green bands should be appearing at seafood markets this weekend, and will stay on Massachusetts lobsters after sinking lines are broadly required to highlight the state's pioneering efforts, said Vicki Cornish of the Ocean Conservancy.

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