- Division of Marine Fisheries
The 2023 right whale season saw plenty of whale activity, plus successful collaboration between DMF, researchers, fishermen and environmental law enforcement. Right whale abundance was once again high in the Massachusetts Restricted Area from late winter to spring 2023, with the observation of approximately 58% of the known population (n=197 individuals) over the course of the season. DMF has partnered with the Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) to conduct aerial surveillance of Cape Cod Bay (CCB) and adjacent water since 1998. Those surveys were expanded to include Massachusetts Bay and the North Shore in response to shifting right whale distribution patterns. In 2023, a season high of 88 individual right whales was documented in CCB on April 9th and whale abundance slowly declined after that until the seasonal trap closure was lifted on May 8th when whales had fully departed the area. In addition, 10 of the 11 mother/calf pairs seen in the Southeast US were also observed in CCB, highlighting the importance of the area as a nursery habitat for that vulnerable life stage. The CCS aerial team is continuing to analyze photos from the season and the number of whales observed could increase.
In 2023, DMF again implemented the Massachusetts Restricted Area (MRA), a seasonal trap gear closure from February 1 through May 15 in Cape Cod Bay, the Outer Cape, Massachusetts Bay and the North Shore, which protects right whales from entanglement risk posed by trap gear. To ensure the conservation benefit of the closure, DMF conducts a derelict gear removal program to remove lost, abandoned or illegal gear from the MRA. This season DMF again partnered with the Massachusetts Environmental Police, commercial fishermen and the Center for Coastal Studies aerial team to identify and remove any gear left in the closure. Compliance was improved over levels seen the previous year, with 368 traps and 208 buoy lines removed from the water in 2023. This is a third of the gear removed in 2022 when compliance with the closure was poor in Mass Bay and the North Shore.
Right whales still face significant threats across their range however and the population has continued its downward trend. Although that decline has slowed in recent years due to a reduction in observed mortalities which peaked in 2017 and 2019. The latest population estimate from 2021 numbers around 340 individuals, with serious entanglements and ship strike remaining significant issues for the species. In the majority of recent cases, the known origin of entanglements has been Canadian snow crab and Canadian lobster gear.
In 2023, DMF continued to support the testing of ropeless or on-demand fishing gear by collaborating with the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) on expanded trials of ropeless systems under their Exempted Fishing Permit. The permit allows the testing of alternatives to traditional buoy lines in the Massachusetts Restricted Area (MRA), however authorization from DMF is required to test ropeless gear in state waters. Between Feb 1 and April 30, NEFSC worked with six commercial fishermen in state and federal waters portions of the MRA to test fully ropeless systems, resulting in 257 ropeless gear hauls. The goal was to test ropeless deployments that minimize the potential for gear conflict. The relatively shallow and sheltered MA state waters provide an ideal testing lab for alternative gear technologies that could be used in a variety of fishing habitats.
By Erin Burke, Protected Species Specialist