State fishing regulators overwhelmingly approved a first-of-its-kind seasonal lobstering ban to protect the North Atlantic right whale on Thursday — but exempted Vineyard and south shore waters from the restrictions after local fishermen expressed concerns about the proposal.

The new regulations, which ban commercial lobstering from Feb. 1 through May 15 in all state waters north and east of Cape Cod — but not the Island — were approved in a 6-1 vote with one abstention by the state Marine Advisory Commission during a dramatic hearing Thursday morning. The new rules differ substantially from an initial Department of Marine Fisheries recommendation that would have banned lobstering statewide.

Regulators also rejected a measure that would have barred lobstering vessels over 29 feet from using single pot lines, partially at the urging of Vineyard representative on the commission Dr. Shelley Edmundson, who asked to form a committee on the proposal. Other approved regulations include weaker rope and a recreational ban in all state waters from Nov. 1 through May 15.

The new seasonal commercial ban comes as a flurry of lawsuits and right whale deaths from entanglement have forced federal and state regulators to act fast in an effort to preserve the species and fall in line with the Environmental Protection Act. State regulators hope to use the new conservation measures to obtain an Incidental Take Permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is required for the continued operation of the lobster fishery.

On Thursday, Ms. Edmundson voted in favor of the ban, joining five other members of the nine-person state regulatory body who felt that the legal threat facing the industry from the courtroom outweighed the economic threat the ban would have in the harbor.

“I’m conflicted with this, and see the strain this would put on the industry,” Ms. Edmunson said during the hearing. “But also trying to balance — without a take permit, we won’t be able to have a fishery at all.”

In an email to the Gazette, DMF administrator Jared Silva said the new regulations would go into effect when they are filed with the state register. The earliest possible date is March 5.

A federal ban on lobstering previously existed in Cape Cod bay from Feb. 1 through April 15, where the critically endangered right whales are known to frolic by the hundreds in the spring. The new state regulations will now extend that ban through May, subject to the presence of whales, and include the state’s productive north shore fishery. More than 600 commercial lobstermen will be affected by the ban.

Federal regulators with NOAA fisheries have also proposed new federal bans in certain regions around the Cape, Islands and north shore, which are subject to approval this spring.

The initial statewide proposal, pitched in December by state DMF secretary Dan McKiernan, faced intense backlash from the fleet of approximately 75 regional fishermen south of Cape Cod, who felt that the early springtime closure unnecessarily threatened a Vineyard fishery already in steep decline due in part to warming waters. Fishermen also argued that right whales were actually rare in the region, making the closure superfluous.

Martha’s Vineyard has about 10 full time lobster fishermen, and many more recreational lobstermen who will be affected by the ban. Fairhaven, New Bedford and Falmouth-based lobstermen are known to offload their catch in Menemsha.

During the hearing Thursday, Mr. McKiernan said researchers analyzed right whale data from the past half-decade, showing that the closure south of Cape Cod would have only decreased the risk of right whale entanglement in state waters by 1.3 per cent. He proposed exempting the Vineyard region from the commercial ban.

“We got some concerns from fishermen that there wasn’t a large number of right whales in the area,” Mr. McKiernan said. “Based on the knowledge that the area basically has no whales in it . . . most of the lobstering that happens around Chilmark and the Elizabeth islands would be able to continue.”

But commissioners were still largely conflicted about the ban, particularly regarding its impacts on the far more lucrative Massachusetts north shore fishery. Mr. McKiernan urged commissioners to vote in favor, saying that the industry was in serious legal peril and that including the north shore was foundational to the state’s application for an incidental take permit from NOAA.

While a legal shutdown posed an “existential threat” to the industry, Mr. McKiernan said, a three-month ban during which only two per cent of all landings are caught did not.

“I would ask the majority of the commission members to really consider the larger fate of the lobster fishery in voting here. Because we think this is surgical, we think this is appropriate,” Mr. McKiernan said at the hearing. “I think the fishery can withstand this closure.”

Not all commissioners agreed. Bill Amaru of Orleans abstained in the vote and Arthur (Sookie) Sawyer of Gloucester, a north shore fishing town, voted against it.

“I can’t support this motion,” Mr. Sawyer said. “The Mass in-shore lobster fishery has never killed a right whale. And I can’t see why we need to do this restriction now.”

After approving additional gear modifications, regulators decided to table a recommendation to ban large boats from using single-pot lines. Ms. Edmundson spoke against the measure, referencing the challenges posed by multi-trap trawls for Vineyard lobstermen.

“I have some concern with this recommendation for the Vineyard fleet,” Ms. Edmundson said. “We have a number of boats that have lower trap allocations, they’re fishing single-handedly, and the single-pot fishery is safer for them. This measure would really impact a lot of people.”

The commission withdrew the recommendation and formed a subcommittee to discuss the proposal for 2022, with Ms. Edmunson, Mr. Sawyer, Mr. Amaru and Tim Brady of Plymouth joining the task force.

All proposed state regulatory changes affecting marine fisheries are required to be approved by the Marine Fishermen’s Advisory Committee, which meets monthly by webinar.

The right whale population has been in steep decline for the past decade, with an unusual mortality event leading to more than 30 deaths since 2017. There are estimated to be fewer than 400 of the species in existence, although at least nine new calves have been spotted off the coasts of Florida and Georgia this spring.

In an email statement to The Gazette, Ms. Edmundson reiterated the importance of the measures for both right whales, and the lobster industry.  

"The Commercial Trap Gear Closure regulation was a critical aspect of DMF's right whale conservation recommendations. Without it, the ability for DMF to obtain an Incidental Take Permit would have been in jeopardy, which could close all trap fishing," she wrote.