© 2022 Maine Public
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Environment and Outdoors

New lobster gear rules to protect endangered right whales kick in on Monday. Fishermen fear it’s the first step in killing the industry

right whale
Right Whale Research
Center for Coastal Studies Via Associated Press

On Monday federal regulators will close a big swathe of Maine's coastal waters to traditional lobster and crab harvests. It's an effort to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales from entanglement in fishing gear. But in Maine, many lobstermen fear it's the beginning of the end of a way of life.

North Atlantic right whales got their name because they swim slowly, and once killed, they float — making them the right animal for 19th-century whalers to target. Now there are fewer than 370 left on the planet, and they may be on the final road to extinction.

Today's threats come from ship strikes, and entanglements with the rope fishermen use to mark and haul their traps.

"Right whales are plankton feeders, so they're sort of going through the water like a lawnmower, back and forth, looking for patches of plankton, mouth wide open," says Amy Knowlton.

The New England Aquarium's Amy Knowlton, who does a lot of her work in Maine, says the number of traps licensed for Maine boats stands at nearly 3 million. So whales swimming in some areas off the state's coast, she says, face dangerous fields of vertical rope that stretch from traps below to buoys above.

amy knowlton.jpg
Fred Bever
Maine Public
New England Aquarium whale scientist Amy Knowlton.

"They're probably hitting gear pretty often. But when it gets into the mouth, and it gets hooked into that baleen, and then they start pulling on it...  They're going to freak out and start wrapping up in that gear. And it's just horrendous what these whales are experiencing," Knowlton says.

Within 10 years, federal regulators are calling for a radical reduction in the use of gear-rope, aiming to squeeze the risk of harm to right whales down to near zero. It's a transformation lobstermen fear could kill the industry.

And the regulations kick in next week, with a four-month ban on trap-rope in nearly 1,000 square miles of prime lobster grounds off Maine. Federal scientists say it's a hot-spot where whales and gear from at least 60 lobster boats could cross paths.

"It's probably 30% of our income, and it might be even more than that," says lobsterman Richard Larrabee Jr. He and his two sternmen are delivering their haul from his spotless 42-foot boat, the Rock Bottom, to a buyer's platform near Stonington - the nation's largest lobster port.

"Those months are crucial. Close an area like that, it doesn't just hurt the people that fish there; it hurts the people that fish above there, because you got to go someplace," Larrabee says.

Larrabee is one of many around here who've taken big loans to buy big boats suited for work far offshore, where as the ocean's warmed, lobster populations have boomed. The fishermen's success has rippled through coastal economies, and now anger about the new gear rules can be heard up and down the supply chain.

Larrabee hints he just might keep on fishing in the restricted zone.

"I can't say. I can't incriminate myself. I'm going to stand with my fishermen. Whatever they want to do, we're going to do," Larrabee says.

larrabee rock bottom.jpg
Fred Bever
Maine Public
Captain Richard Larrabee Jr. and crew of the Rock Bottom sort lobsters off Stonington in September.

Other fishermen who drop traps in the restricted zone sound less militant, but still deeply frustrated. Dustin Delano is a Friendship lobstermen and is vice-president of the Maine Lobstermen's Association. He says the feds' 10-year plan to reduce risk for the whales by 98% could end the fishery.

"I think about my future for sure and my friends around here, family, I think  probably every day what I could do, what I will do if it comes to that. Because I see it as more likely every time there's a new ruling or new regulation put in place," Delano says.

"I'm hearing 'this sucks and we'll deal with it to 'you're going to have to come in and kick me out of it, because I feel like I've got the right to fish here," says Patrick Keliher, who heads Maine's Department of Marine Resources. He's tasked with enforcing the new rules, even though he opposes most of them. He says that while Maine's lobstermen are adaptable entrepreneurs who have enjoyed record landings this last decade, it's still an industry at risk.

"Any time I hear people saying - 'oh look at these people they're just crying, they're fine, they've made all this money.' OK the groundfish industry made all that money at one time,  right? And now look at where we are with the groundfish. These are always boom and bust industries," Keliher says.

He and other industry defenders say federal regulators are over-stating the Maine lobster fleet's share of risk to right whales. And they point to evidence that climate change is pushing right whales to forage north of here - up to Canadian waters where most recent whale mortalities have been discovered.

But right now, conservation groups are asking a federal judge to order a new analysis of the whales' prospects, and looking for a more robust recovery plan. They see promise in new high-tech "ropeless" gear that fishermen could track and trigger to the surface electronically.

It will be permitted in restricted zones such as the new one off Maine, and another even larger one that will be imposed off Massachusetts in February. Marine scientist Amy Knowlton says the technology could help protect all types of whales, and endangered turtles too.

"There’s a lot of hard work to do to fix this problem. It’s not just an east coast U.S. problem or Canadian problem. It's on the west coast, it's around the world frankly, and if we can address it here and help this fishery transition, they’ll be the heroes," Knowlton says.

A handful of lobstermen are trying out the new gear alongside their traditional systems. But many think it won't work in a lot of open-ocean situations, is far too expensive, and is not advancing fast enough to solve the problem any time soon.

And a federal judge in Bangor is set to hear oral arguments Friday morning on a request by the Maine Lobstering Union for a temporary injunction against the new restricted zone.