MA - New relief fund would buoy lobster industry

BOSTON — A proposed state fund would provide financial relief to commercial lobstermen whose livelihoods are being impacted by state and federal regulations aimed at protecting critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.

Tucked into a $52.7 billion state budget awaiting action by Gov. Charlie Baker is a proposal to create a new grant program with $500,000 in initial funding.

The plan calls for providing grants of up to $5,000 to licensed lobstermen to help offset the cost of purchasing new gear and equipment needed to comply with the new whale protection rules. The grant money must be distributed in a “geographically equitable manner” under the proposal.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, who pushed for the funding, said it will help buoy lobstermen who are struggling to afford the expense of upgrading their gear and equipment.

“The cost and economic hardship involved with protecting right whales is falling squarely and heavily on the shoulders of those who depend on our commercial lobster fishery for their livelihood, and a significant part of that burden is the cost of new gear being required just to be able to keep fishing,” Tarr said.

“This grant program confronts that expense head-on and will also help expedite new gear in the water to minimize the risk of harm to the whales,” he added.

Tarr and other lawmakers had pushed for a larger $12 million “mediation” fund, but that proposal didn’t make it into the final version of the budget.

New federal regulations that went into effect in March require lobstermen to make gear modifications to reduce the number of vertical lines in federal waters and establish areas that will be off limits during the winter months.

In some locations, the new rules also require buoyless — meaning ropeless — fishing gear, a new and costly technology that brings lobster traps to the surface using wireless signals.

Besides complying with the new federal rules, Massachusetts lobstermen have had to deal with the closure of lucrative fishing grounds from March to May for the past two years to help mitigate the possibility of gear entanglements with migrating whales.

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