Conservation of Protected Marine Species

DMF has participated in numerous programs to protect endangered marine mammals and sea turtles. The following projects are a portion of what we do to protect these species.

The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) works to protect marine mammals and marine reptiles that use Massachusetts waters.  These species are protected by the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act. DMF has implemented a range of fixed gear regulations meant to reduce the risk of entanglement and ship strike for large whales and sea turtles in the Commonwealth. In addition, DMF collaborates with partners on research and conservation projects that monitor protected species and mitigate and minimize human impacts. 

Protected Species Regulations

DMF regulates both fishing activity and vessel activity to protect right whales. We limit participation in commercial fixed gear fisheries that may entangle right whales; require fixed gear be removed from state waters at times and in places when right whales are known to aggregate; and require fixed gear be modified at other times of the year when right whales are rarely present to reduce the risk of injury or mortality should a large whale become entangled and ensure gear is identifiable to Massachusetts fisheries. DMF also regulates vessel speed to reduce interactions with right whales.  

Fixed Fishing Regulations that Reduce Interactions with Protected Species 

Limiting Access 

  • DMF limits the issuance of commercial sink gillnet permits and does not allow them to be transferred. 

  • DMF limits the issuance of commercial lobster permits and allows them to be transferred only if they are actively fished. 

  • DMF caps the number of commercial student lobster permits to be issued annually at 125. 

Time Area Closures  

  • DMF prohibits the setting of sink gillnets in all state waters from January 15 – May 15.  See Map  

  • DMF prohibits the setting of commercial trap gear in all state waters north and east of Cape Cod, including Cape Cod Bay, from February 1 – May 15.  See Map  

  • DMF prohibits the setting of recreational trap gear in all state waters from November 1 – May 15. See Map 

  • These closures may be extended or rescinded beginning on May 1 based on the continued presence/absence of right whales in Massachusetts waters.  

Gear Modifications 

  • DMF requires trap gear buoy lines break at 1,700-pound tensile strength or be rigged with 1,700 pound tensile strength weak contrivances every 60’ so as to cleanly break if entangling a right whale.  

  • DMF requires commercial trap gear buoy lines not exceed 3/8” diameter and recreational trap gear buoy lines not exceed 5/16” diameter. 

  • DMF requires a specific color-coded buoy line marking system for commercial trap gear fished in Massachusetts waters, commercial trap gear fished by Massachusetts permit holders in federal waters, and recreational trap gear fished in Massachusetts waters.  

  • DMF requires sink gillnets be rigged with a 600-pound tensile strength weak link at the buoy and 1,100-pound tensile strength weak links along the float rope.  

  • DMF requires sink gillnets be fished with an anchor with the holding power of a 22-pound Danforth anchor. 

  • DMF requires a specific color-coded buoy line marking system for sink gillnets.  

Vessel Activity Regulations 

  • From March 1 – April 30, DMF prohibits all vessels from exceeding 10 knots while in Cape Cod Bay vessel speed limit restricted area, which consists of all waters of Cape Cod Bay south of 42°08’ north latitude (Scituate) and those waters north and east of Cape Cod (Provincetown) west of 70°10’ west longitude. This may be extended or rescinded based on the continued presence/absence of right whales in Massachusetts waters. See Map

  • DMF prohibits a vessel coming within 500 yards of a surfacing right whale and must depart any area immediately if in the presence of a surfacing right whale.  

  • Commercial fishing activity is prohibited within 500 years of surfacing right whale. If actively engaged in commercial fishing, the vessel may complete the haul or tow with minimum disruption and then promptly depart from area.  

  • DMF prohibits any vessel or vessel operator to harass or harm a right whale.  

  • DMF requires all vessel operators to report any observed entanglements.  

Additional Resources for

Protected Species Research and Conservation Efforts

DMF collaborates with a variety of partners on research and conservation work to monitor protected species and mitigate and minimize human impacts.  These programs include disentanglement efforts, derelict gear removal, and the development of alternative gear solutions.   

Right Whale Surveillance Program 

Since 1998, DMF has partnered with the Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) to conduct aerial surveillance of right whales during the peak of their residency from January through mid-May each year. It is important to understand the real-time movements and habitat use patterns of right whales so sound management decisions can be made.  Aerial surveillance also informs the dynamic management of fixed gear closures and speed restrictions.  In addition, DMF partners with CCS on vessel-based right whale habitat monitoring, documenting the zooplankton resource and oceanographic characteristics of Cape Cod Bay and relating that information to right whale distribution, abundance, and behavior. Information about right whale food resources and associated distribution of whales also contributes to effective management strategies. 

Additional Resources for

Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan 

In 1997 the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) initiated the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan to reduce serious injury and mortality of large whales caused by entanglement in trap and gillnet gear. DMF has been a part of the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team since its inception and has played an integral role in crafting regulations and amendments to the plan. NMFS last amended the plan in 2021 which included requirements for expanded gear marking, the use of reduced breaking strength buoy lines, and expanded seasonal trap closures.   

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Marine Animal Entanglement Response  

To further reduce the potential for injury and mortality of protected marine species, DMF partners with the Center for Coastal Studies, NOAA Fisheries, and the Massachusetts Environmental Trust to operate a 24-hour entanglement reporting hotline and rapid response disentanglement network in Massachusetts. The Marine Animal Entanglement Response Program (MAER) is a part of both the Atlantic Large Whale Disentanglement Network and the Sea Turtle Disentanglement Network which are permitted and managed by NOAA Fisheries. The goals of the program are to document entanglement reports of large whales and sea turtles, provide on-water disentanglement response, and collect information on the entangling gear.  

Additional Resources for

On-Demand Gear Research 

DMF invests in and promotes the research and development of cost-effective alternative fishing technology, including on-demand (commonly called “ropeless gear”) fishing systems, focused on reducing entanglement risk to protected species. DMF received funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) to develop a framework for the implementation of on-demand fishing in New England. Through assistance by a contractor, DMF initiated a scoping process with a variety of stakeholders to address the regulatory, logistical, technological, and financial challenges with this potential gear modification. Through interviews and an in-person workshop with a range of stakeholders, we identified key concepts and issues that need to be addressed and synthesized that information into a summary report with recommendations for addressing the challenged to implementing on-demand fishing. The project was recently extended to include model development and analysis of the economic impact of on-demand fishing.  This work will examine the socioeconomic issues of on-demand fishing gear, producing a first of its kind model capable of providing economic welfare and cost impact estimates for lobster fisheries under various on-demand fishing gear management and implementation scenarios. In addition, DMF provides Letters of Authorization (LOA) to individuals or groups to investigate modifications to trap fishing gear that may further reduce the risk of entanglement or the severity of entanglement. DMF has provided numerous LOAs to researchers seeking to test on-demand fishing systems in state waters. These in-situ investigations are an important step in the advancement of alternative gear technology. 

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Derelict Gear Removal 

DMF conducts a joint program with the Massachusetts Environmental Police (MEP) to identify and remove all lost and abandoned fixed fishing gear within seasonal fixed gear closures areas in Massachusetts state waters. This effort ensures that our seasonal trap closure is as effective as intended at reducing entanglement risk. It also provides DMF with an additional opportunity to monitor compliance with the vertical line configuration and marking requirements. Enforcement through this program enhances overall compliance with protected species regulations and ensures there is no entanglement risk to right whales when they are seasonally abundant in state waters. 

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