New rules to protect whales to be in place by October

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BOSTON (AP) – New rules to protect endangered whales from fatal fishing gear entanglements will be in place by October after environmentalists sued to end what they said was an inexcusable delay.

The National Marine Fisheries Service agreed to issue the new regulations by Oct. 1. in a settlement agreement with the Ocean Conservancy and The Humane Society, the environmental groups said Tuesday.

The rules were first proposed in early 2005, but never put in place. The groups sued in February to force action, saying the rules were urgently needed to protect whales including the North Atlantic right whale, which has a total population of about 350. Mary Colligan, Assistant Regional Administrator for Protected Resources at NMFS, said federal officials have been working through complicated issues as quickly as possible to ensure the rules are effective.

“It’s important to move as fast as possible,” she said. “It’s also important to move in a very informed manner.”

It is uncertain what the final rule will look like, but Sharon Young of The Humane Society said anything was progress.

“There’s no question it’s going to be a step forward, we just don’t know how big a step,” he said.

A key part of the proposed rules was a switch by lobstermen to rope that sinks to the ocean floor so whales don’t get caught in it. Since January, Massachusetts has required fishermen to use the sinking line, but similar measures aren’t in place in other states. Some lobstermen have objected, saying the requirement to switch to the costlier rope was a financial hardship and was unnecessary in some areas.

Marine gear entanglements and ship strikes are the top human causes of right whale deaths.

On July 1, the shipping lanes in and out of Boston Harbor were rotated slightly northward to avoid an area with a high concentration of the right whales.

AP-ES-07-10-07 1714EDT

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