The National Marine Fisheries Service is taking public comments until Oct. 18 on its plan to make the so-called Massachusetts Restricted Area Wedge fully covered by seasonal prohibitions on fishing trap and fish pot gear with vertical buoy lines.
The change is in a proposed amendment to the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan for expanding boundaries of the Massachusetts Restricted Area to include the wedge between state and federal waters. Previously exempted from the strictest gear limits, the was closed by emergency rulemaking in 2022 and 2023 when federal officials said there was immediate risk to North Atlantic right whales from “mortality and serious injury caused by buoy lines in an area with a high co-occurrence of whales and buoy lines. This risk is expected to recur annually.”
Closing the wedge closes a gap in protection for right, fin and humpback whales from entanglement danger during the existing Massachusetts Restricted Area seasonal closure from February 1 through April 30 every year, according to the agency. Its proposed rule and draft environmental assessment can be found on the NOAA Fisheries webpage.
The public comment period closes Oct. 18; written comments can be submitted online through the Federal Register comment portal or by attending and speaking oral comment periods at two public hearings in Massachusetts next week:
Tuesday, Sept. 26 from 5 to 7 p.m.
Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office
55 Great Republic Drive
Gloucester, MA 01930
Thursday, Sept. 28 from 5 to 7 p.m.
Massachusetts Maritime Academy
Bay State Room
101 Academy Drive
Buzzards Bay, MA 02532
The public hearings will start with short presentations from NMFS workers and a 10-minute period for clarifying questions, with the balance of the time for hearing comments from the public.
“We would appreciate comments on the area and seasonality of the proposed additional closure area and operational or economic impacts,” according to an advisory from NMFS. “Comments may be restricted to no more than 3 to 5 minutes to ensure all interested attendees have an opportunity to speak.”
Ongoing construction and survey work for offshore wind energy projects, from Vineyard Wind off Massachusetts south to New Jersey, has wind project opponents insisting that activity is linked to a series of humpback whale strandings in the New York Bight, and is posing new danger to the already highly endangered right whale.
NMFS included a caveat in its public comment notice:
“The scope of this meeting and public comment period is confined to this proposed rule under the Marine Mammal Protection Act take reduction process which exclusively addresses commercial fisheries.
“We understand the public may have concerns about other activities that may affect right whale recovery. For more information on ongoing right whale recovery efforts, see our Road to Recovery webpage.”