Scientists and officials in New England hope to collect better data about a vanishing whale species, improve fishing gear to avoid harming the animals, and make other changes as Maine and Massachusetts receive more than $27 million in public funding.

The money is intended to aid the North Atlantic right whale, which is jeopardized by entanglement in commercial fishing gear and collisions with large ships. The population of the giant whales fell by about 25% from 2010 to 2020, and now numbers less than 360.

The largest chunk of the money is $17.2 million the Maine Department of Marine Resources has received from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to improve data collection about the whales, officials said Tuesday. The money will allow Maine to expand its right whale research and improve the assessment of risk to the whales posed by lobster fishing, which is a key industry in the state, Maine officials said.

“The goal of this research is to collect data that tells us what is happening in the Gulf of Maine, so we can be protective of whales in a way that also doesn’t devastate Maine’s critically important lobster industry,” said Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

Right Whale Protection

A North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth, Mass., in 2018. Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

The marine resources department has also received two grants totaling a little more than $5 million from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The department said those grants will help with research into alternatives to traditional lobster trap and buoy fishing gear to try to reduce the risk of injury to the whales.

The Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game’s Division of Marine Fisheries has received more than $4.6 million from a congressional appropriation through the regulatory Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which manages East Coast fisheries. The division said it would use the money for development of new fishing gear technology as well as to increase research and monitoring and provide gear to participants in the lobster industry.

“We have a special responsibility to help these endangered animals, and to promote innovative measures to support whale recovery and Massachusetts’ important lobster industry,” said Rebecca Tepper, the Massachusetts energy and environmental affairs secretary.

The right whale’s decline in recent years has prompted new proposed rules on commercial fishing and shipping. NOAA is expected to release a final updated ship speed rule this year. The federal government might also soon attempt to craft new protective fishing rules in the wake of a court decision last year.

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