Whale Protection Rules: Maine Lobstermen Divided Over Whether to Sue

Oct 28, 2014

Four North American right whales.
Credit Peter Duley / National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Maine lobstermen are considering taking the federal government to court over regulations designed to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales. The Maine Lobstering Union has filed a notice of intent to sue the National Marine Fisheries Service over new and existing rules requiring the modification of lobster gear. The union argues that the rules put fishermen at greater risk of accident and injury, while offering little proven protection for the whale population. But not everyone in Maine's lobstering community thinks a lawsuit is a good idea.

 

With an estimated population of fewer than 500, the North Atlantic right whale is regarded as one of the most endangered whale species in the world. In the spring and summer, they migrate to feeding grounds in Northeastern waters, including the Gulf of Maine.

Regulators grew concerned that too many of them were getting seriously hurt or killed after becoming tangled up in floating fishing lines. So in 2009 they began requiring lobstermen to use sinking ground lines - ropes that link lobster traps together on the ocean floor.

Five years later, more gear modifications are on the way. Next June, lobstermen outside a certain exemption zone will have to reduce the number of vertical lines going into the water by attaching more traps to a single rope.

Kim Erwin Tucker says "enough is enough." She's an attorney for the Maine Lobstering Union, which represents about 600 of the state's 5,000 or so lobstermen. In August, the MLU issued a notice of intent to sue the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The combination of the sinking ground line rule, with the requirement to increase the number of traps you put on a single trawl using a single vertical line buoy, increases the risk of lost gear," Tucker says.

She says that's because much of the ocean floor off the Maine coast is rocky and jagged, and therefore more likely to damage or destroy a sinking rope. Tucker also says the rules increase the risk to both humans and whales, "because, obviously, if a whale is entangled in a multi-trap trawl with sinking ground lines, it's far more dangerous than single traps or double trap trawls. The traps you add to a single trawl, the more dangerous it is for humans, the more dangerous it is for whales."

Tucker says whale entanglements in fishing gear actually increased after the sinking ground line was introduced in 2009. She also also claims the rule has led to increased injuries among lobstermen, including a lot of lost fingers. MLU members will vote sometime before next April on whether to proceed with the lawsuit.

Maine's lobstering community is divided on the issue. "We're really not interested in pursuing any of this in the court," says Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association.

She points out that the Maine lobstering industry managed to negotiate some sizeable exemptions - both on the 2009 ground line rule and the incoming one on vertical lines. "The majority of lobstermen in Maine are actually exempt from the whale rules," McCarron says.

Those rules, she says, do not apply to approximately 70 percent of Maine state waters, which is where about three-quarters of the state's lobstermen ply their trade. McCarron, and others, are worried that a lawsuit could ultimately endanger these achievements. "I don't want to lose what we've got with our compromise agreements," McCarron says.

Steve Train, of Long Island, Maine, has been lobster fishing for about 25 years. He's not a member of the Maine Lobstering Union. Train says he's no fan of the federal entanglement rules - particularly the vertical lines measure being introduced next year, but worries that a lawsuit may re-open negotiations with regulators and eventually unravel hard-won exemptions.

"To negotiate a settlement ahead of time that allows us to continue in business is better than going to court with our backs against the wall saying, 'We're not going to do it and this why,' and opening all of our exemptions back up," Train says.

Supporters of the lawsuit say such fears are unfounded and underestimate how hard it is to re-write federal regulations. Among conservationists, there's anger over the exemption that Maine's lobster fishermen got regarding the whale entanglement rules.

"These animals die slowly and miserably - the ropes cut into their flesh," says Sharon Young, the marine issues field director with the Humane Society of the U.S. Because right whale numbers are so low, she says more must be done to prevent them getting caught up in fishing gear.

"The more lines you have in the water, the greater the risk to these animals," Young says, "and yet 70 percent of Maine state waters are exempt from having to do anything - they don't have to use sinking lines, they don't have to use vertical lines."

And as for the reported increase in injuries to lobstermen as a result of the sinking ground line rule, Young says she wants to see hard data on this trend before it can be taken seriously.