- Division of Marine Fisheries
Final Protected Species Regulations
In December 2020, DMF went out to public hearing to take comment on a suite of fixed gear closures and modifications designed to reduce the potential risk of endangered right whales becoming entangled in buoy lines. This included expanding the geographic extent of both the existing wintertime trap and sink gillnet closures, establishing a seasonal recreational lobster and crab trap closure, requiring the use of buoy lines with a 1,700-pound breaking strength, prohibiting the fishing of single traps onboard vessels 29’ in length and greater, and adopting maximum buoy line diameters for commercial and recreational trap fisheries.
The complete proposal, the public comment record, and public hearing presentations may be found on DMF’s proposed regulations website and recordings of the public hearings may be found on DMF’s YouTube channel. At present, DMF is developing a final recommendation to present to its Marine Fisheries Advisory Commission at their January 28, 2021 business meeting. Approved measures will then be promulgated in regulation in February 2021 and details on this final rule will be published on DMF’s website.
In 2019, a citizen’s lawsuit was filed against the Commonwealth of Massachusetts under the Endangered Species Act. The complaint alleged that DMF’s permitting of commercial fixed gear fisheries and requirements that they use buoy lines violated the endangered species act because the buoy lines may entangle endangered right whales and leatherback turtles. In April 2020, the court ordered DMF to apply to NOAA Fisheries for an Incidental Take Permit (ITP). An ITP application requires the applicant to develop a Habitat Conservation Plan. The HCP must detail the steps being taken to minimize and mitigate the impacts the activity is having on endangered species. These regulations make up the backbone of DMF’s HCP for right whales and its ITP application for the continued use of vertical buoy lines in its trap and gillnet fisheries. DMF is also currently developing additional regulations to address its ITP application for leatherback turtles. DMF anticipates these regulations will be taken out to public hearing in mid-to-late 2021 for implementation in 2022.
Draft Regulations Affecting Recreational Fisheries
During late 2020, DMF developed several regulatory proposals affecting its recreational striped bass, groundfish, and blue crab fisheries. DMF expects to go to public hearing during the winter of 2021 on these regulatory adjustments, which will then go into effect for the spring of 2021. The details of the proposals are provided below. Be on the lookout for a public hearing notice in early 2021.
Circle Hook Requirement for Striped Bass: DMF will be proposing to eliminate exemptions and therefore universally apply its circle hook requirement for recreational striped bass fishing with bait.
The most recent stock assessment for striped bass demonstrated that, due to the great popularity of this resource amongst anglers, the largest single source of fishing mortality on striped bass is the discard mortality associated with the recreational fishery (i.e., fish that die as a consequence of being caught and released by recreational anglers). Studies have demonstrated that circle hooks can significantly reduce the rate of deep hooking striped bass, as compared to j-hooks and treble hooks, and thereby reduce discard mortality. In 2020, DMF implemented new regulations requiring the use of circle hooks by recreational anglers fishing with whole or cut natural baits for striped bass. Based on public input, this regulation exempted anglers onboard for-hire vessels and anglers fishing with natural baits affixed to artificial lures designed to be vertically jigged, cast and retrieved or trolled (e.g., tube and worm).
In implementing this regulation, DMF was getting ahead of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s (ASMFC) requirement for 2021 that all Atlantic coastal states implement a circle hook mandate for recreational striped bass fishing with natural bait.
While the interstate fishery management plan provides states flexibility to propose exemptions to the requirement—and Massachusetts and Maine requested to keep theirs—the ASMFC ultimately decided not to allow any. Concern was expressed that the exemptions would weaken enforcement and undermine the intent of the provision, especially if additional states submitted requests. Accordingly, DMF’s circle hook rule needs to be amended for compliance with the interstate plan, and DMF will be proposing to rescind the exemptions for anglers onboard for-hire vessels and anglers fishing with natural baits affixed to artificial lures.
It is noteworthy that during the winter of 2020 angler groups coastwide have petitioned the ASMFC to reconsider an exemption to its circle hook rule to continue to allow for tube and worm fishing with a j-hook. The ASMFC is expected to review this petition at their February 2021 meeting. DMF supported such an exemption when the ASMFC was developing its circle hook mandate, and if allowed by the ASMFC, DMF intends to adopt the exemption in the final state regulation.
Recreational Gulf of Maine Cod and Haddock Limits: DMF will be proposing to open additional days to recreational cod and haddock fishing in the Gulf of Maine in April.
The recreational GOM cod fishery is heavily restricted due to its depleted status. This also impacts the recreational GOM haddock fishery on account of the species’ overlap and the unintentional catch of cod in the haddock fishery. Fishing year 2020 (May 1, 2020–April 30, 2021) began with the following open seasons: September 15–September 30 for GOM cod; and May 1–February 28 and April 15–April 30 for GOM haddock. Subsequent modeling of alternative recreational measures using more complete catch estimates indicated that some liberalization could occur without catch limits being exceeded, prompting NOAA Fisheries to provide additional access in federal waters in April, as recommended by the New England Fishery Management Council. For consistency with the federal regulations, DMF will be proposing to establish an April 1–April 14 open season for Gulf of Maine cod with a 1-fish bag limit and 21” minimum size, as well as extending the recreational haddock season throughout the month of April with a 15-fish bag limit and 17” minimum size.
Blue Crab Traps Restrictions: DMF is proposing to prohibit the use of trap gear to take blue crabs and the retention of blue crabs taken by trap gear.
The blue crab fishery in Massachusetts is predominately recreational, as the 25-crab limit has constrained its commercialization. Typically, blue crabs are harvested by trot lines (sinking lines to which one or more baited hooks is attached), dip nets, or star traps (open-top or collapsible traps). However, DMF has received reports that the use of six-sided, fixed trap gear is becoming more common. During the summer of 2020, the Massachusetts Environmental Police documented the capture of northern diamond-backed terrapins in six-sided traps set in estuaries around Cape Cod. When these salt marsh turtles, which are listened as threatened under the state’s Endangered Species Act, are captured in trap gear they typically drown unless the gear is hauled immediately after capture. To prevent this, DMF is proposing to prohibit the use of trap gear in taking blue crabs.
Draft Regulations Affecting Commercial Fisheries
Throughout this winter, DMF will be working through the MFAC to draft regulatory proposals affecting certain commercial fisheries. These proposals are being developed to better utilize available quota and improve enforcement of existing regulations. Draft proposals may include changes to the management of commercial striped bass and summer flounder quota, reducing the extent of the longstanding bluefish gillnet closure in southeastern Cape Cod Bay, new restrictions on the open entry menhaden fishery, and additional surface marking requirements to differentiate between trap types. DMF expects these draft proposals will proceed to public hearing during the early spring for implementation prior to the summertime start of these fisheries.