R 292
97-S 1069
Passed in Senate
May 9, 1997

J O I N T  R E S O L U T I O N

WHEREAS, The Rhode Island General Assembly is deeply concerned over proposed regulations recently issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for the protection of whales in the near-shore waters of southern New England. As currently written, the proposed regulations seem unjustified, overly threatening, and are, quite possibly, counter-productive to the goal of marine mammal protection; and

WHEREAS, While the General Assembly strongly supports efforts to decrease the potential interaction of fishing gear and marine mammals, and fully appreciates the tremendous challenges facing the NMFS to preserve endangered species, the membership is also committed to protecting the legitimate rights of Rhode Island citizens who make their living harvesting the bounty of the sea; and

WHEREAS, One issue in dispute with the new regulations is that they are nearly as stringent as those proposed for Critical Habitat areas, and more restrictive than those intended for "offshore" fisheries. This seems very difficult to justify, considering that over the past seven years the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) has been conducting sea samplings aboard commercial lobster vessels and, after 210 trips and nearly 80,000 trap hauls, RIDEM has reported no observations of entanglements with large whales. RIDEM has also been involved in finfish trawl surveys since 1979 in state waters and Rhode Island Sound, and reports no observations of whales or whale entanglements since the beginning of this monitoring program; and

WHEREAS, Many of the regulations proposed by the NMFS call for the modification of lobster gear to reduce the risk of entanglements. The lobster fishermen who work these waters already have in place some of the gear designs being looked at as potentially beneficial for whale protection. A large proportion of the ground line currently being deployed is sinking line, which is not thought to pose a threat to whales, and Rhode Island regulations prohibit the use of floating line within eight feet of the surface; and

WHEREAS, Another concern posed by the new regulations relates to minimal breaking strengths for buoy lines. The strengths advocated by the NMFS may well result in continuous line failures, due both to the strains associated with hauling the gear off of the bottom and from large swell activity from storms. The ensuing gear losses might easily create new problems for marine mammal protection and, for that reason, any deployment of new, untested gear without proper research and development would be ill-advised; and

WHEREAS, An additional cause for concern is the proposed requirement that the floating section of a buoy line be no longer than ten percent of the depth of the water. Lobster fishermen must frequently shift their gear from one depth to another. Having to customize the buoy line for each gear redeployment would be next to impossible; and

WHEREAS, The General Assembly is particularly concerned that the NMFS has clearly outlined the circumstances that would lead to area closures, specifically, where whales are concentrated in a given area, or where there is the remote chance of gear failure leading to a death or injury. The NMFS, however, has not defined the mechanisms for re-opening these closed areas. Closing an area based upon the presence of four or more right whales for a period of two or more weeks is not likely to be effective because lobster gear takes time to move, and the whales are likely to have left the area before the gear can be shifted; and

WHEREAS, The State of Rhode Island is home to over 300 commercial fishing vessels engaged in lobster fishery, employing an estimated 2,000 fishermen. The lobster industry represents an estimated $100 million worth of economic activity to the Ocean State's economy; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That this General Assembly of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations hereby memorializes the National Marine Fisheries Service to review and rewrite proposed whale protection regulations for lobster pot gear in southern New England and the offshore waters so that they do not adversely affect coastal fishermen. While all of the members of the General Assembly, as well as people involved in the fishing industry, are sensitive to the importance of adequate protection for marine mammals, and are committed to assisting in ensuring that these protections are realized, the membership is firmly convinced that the data on past interactions does not validate the severity of the proposed rules. All parties involved must become willing partners dedicated to finding a solution to this difficult problem, and the General Assembly looks forward to working with the NMFS and all concerned groups to develop an effective and rational set of regulations that will ensure the continued survival of the great whales without jeopardizing the survival of this important industry; and be it further

RESOLVED, That the Secretary of State be and he hereby is authorized and directed to transmit a duly certified copy of this resolution to the Chief of the Marine Mammal Division of the Office of Protected Resources of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

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