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Conservationists, Lobstermen Alike Unhappy With Gear Rules Proposed To Protect Right Whales

Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press
A lobsterman works on the stern of a boat hauling traps near House Island at sunrise, Monday, Sept. 21, 2020, off Portland, Maine.

In a public hearing Tuesday night, conservationists and fishermen alike roundly criticized federal regulators’ proposed changes in fishing rules to protect endangered whales from fishing gear.

With roughly 360 North Atlantic right whales left on the planet, the government is moving to reduce their risks of serious injury or death from entanglement with rope that lobstermen and other fishermen use.

Under consideration are measures to require the use of breakaway links in the ropes, more traps per line and seasonal fishery area closures when whales are traveling or gathering in areas off Massachusetts and possibly Maine as well.

“We truly want the whales and all sea life to prosper, and I mean that. But we also need our coastal communities to prosper too,” said Yarmouth lobsterman Brennan Strong, who was one of many who joined the online hearing to say the federal rule-making process is flawed, based on poor understanding of both whale behavior and the potentially dire effects on fishermen’s businesses and safety.

Strong argued that the true danger comes from ship strikes, illustrated by the relatively small number of right whales found dead in 2020, after the pandemic shut down the cruise ship industry and limited cargo traffic as well.

“Two right whales died in 2020, neither from entanglement. How can I willingly sacrifice my operation to accept deadly regulation changes when there is no proof that the regulation changes will help right whales?” he said.

Scientists say even one death a year would lead to extinction. But several conservationists also argued that the proposed rules would be ineffective, because they rely on old data and overly rosy estimates of the species’ survival rate. And they say the seasonal closures aren’t as long enough or big as they should be.

Zack Klyver, a long time Bar Harbor whale-watch leader and marine scientist, said there is evidence that more than 80 percent of the right whales have been injured by trap-ropes, while hundreds of other types of whales have been entangled along the Eastern Seaboard.

“It points to the crisis situation that we’re in and that we’ve been in for a long time,” he said.

And Klyver said the proposal to add more traps per trawl line could prove dangerous.

“I do not support any of the trawling up provisions,” he said, “because they add more traps and weight to each end-line and I believe they make them more lethal.”

Credit NOAA
Proposed traps per line in different lobster management areas, or LMAs.

Much of the discussion focused on so-called “ropeless” lobster fishing technology, which allows traps to be located and retrieved using remote-control systems. Conservationist see that as the ultimate solution, but some acknowledge it needs needs more work. And they say the new rules should provide better incentives to encourage fishermen to help develop it.

But many Maine fisherman scoff at the idea, and Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher agreed it’s not practical for Maine’s diverse fishing grounds.

“It seems the agency is moving in the direction of species protection with no care about collateral damage,” he said.

Keliher testified that the feds’ push toward ropeless fishing gear could lead to the total closure of Maine’s lobster industry. Federal officials hold a second, online public hearing on the proposed rules tonight.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.