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Environment and Outdoors

Local right whale advocates say they feel sidelined by the powerful Maine lobster industry

Right Whales Entangled Birth
AP
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Georgia Department of Natural Resources
This Dec. 2, 2021, photo provided by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources shows an endangered North Atlantic right whale entangled in fishing rope being sighted with a newborn calf in waters near Cumberland Island, Ga.

As Maine's lobstermen fight national conservation groups over federal gear rules and fishery closures intended to protect endangered whales, they have found fierce allies among the state's political leaders. That's left some local advocates for the whales feeling sidelined by the powerful industry.

A few weeks ago, lobstermen joined lawmakers to support a bill that would give nearly a million dollars directly to the industry for its legal battles over whale protection measures.

None of Maine's more well-known conservation groups weighed in, but a handful of local advocates for the planet's estimated 340 North Atlantic right whales testified against it.

Holly Travers, a Westbrook retiree, was interrupted by Rep. James Thorne of Carmel while testifying that "Maine has the highest concentration of all vertical gear in U.S. waters, and whales travel through Maine waters."

Travers was directed to focus her comments narrowly on the bill. The third opponent to receive such a caution, she quickly wrapped up her testimony.

She said she was taken aback by her treatment.

"Why have a public hearing if you're not open to all points of view? You would think that would be the goal of it. But I think not in this case; everyone seemed to be lined up in a certain way. I think when that happens you don't get at the truth," Travers said.

Two women lodged complaints with House Speaker Ryan Fecteau. A spokeswoman said he reviewed the issue and the points of order were in order. But the event highlights the way whale advocates can feel crowded out of the debate in Maine.

"It is really frustrating to be a small voice against a massive wave of the lobster industry. It's difficult to be heard in those circumstances, and it's difficult to be taken seriously," said Sean Todd, a whale biologist and director of Allied Whale, a research group at Bar Harbor's College of the Atlantic, whose mission includes rescuing injured marine mammals.

Back in the 1990s Todd worked on a successful collaboration between fishermen and scientists in Newfoundland, to protect then-endangered Humpback whales from entanglements.

"It's been much more adversarial in the United States example versus the Canadian model. And that's just a shame... It's tragic," Todd said.

Todd said the tone of Maine's conversations about whales took a sharply antagonistic turn around 2015, when after decades of stability, the North Atlantic right whales' numbers started to plummet. National conservation groups ramped up legal pressure on federal regulators to speed up new protections.

whales 1990-2020.png
www.narwc.org
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North Atlantic right whale population from 1990 to 2020.

And the timing coincided with the presidency of Donald Trump and an accelerated polarization of U.S. political discourse.

"To some extent the fishing industry has taken on a little bit of that as well, and they have become very polarized. They are not listening any more, and that is a problem," Todd said.

Todd is one of about a dozen whale advocates called the Maine Coalition for North Atlantic right whales. They say that they support Maine's lobster industry, and believe it can change practices, stay in business and keep the right whales safe. Todd said Maine lobstermen could play a decisive and celebrated role in an eventual story of species' recovery

But in the past couple of years the group's members say, they've had to spend a good deal of their effort combating what they see as myths and half-truths about right whales - for instance, the idea that there hasn't been a whale entangled in Maine lobster gear in almost two decades.

Such statements are being made by lobstermen, lawmakers, and Maine political leaders.

"There hasn't been an entanglement with Maine lobster gear since 2004, and yet this is where the concentration of the response is. It's like declaring war on Brazil after Pearl Harbor," said Sen. Angus King on Maine Calling last fall. He and the rest of the state's Congressional delegation, as well as Gov. Janet Mills and the vast majority of lobstermen all say they want to protect the whales, but that the evidence does not justify the level of risk that's being assigned to Maine's lobster fleet.

sightings.jpg
whalemap.ocean.dal.ca
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A University of Maine glider has made definite and possible sightings of right whales in the Gulf of Maine in 2021, represented by red and yellow dots on this map. Several of these sightings were within a seasonal fisheries closure area, represented by the diagonal gray stripe.

They have called on the federal government to postpone new gear rules that take effect in May.

"I think Angus was very uninformed at the point, and he just got information from the wrong place when he said that," said Bill McWeeny, who chairs the Maine whale coalition. A former science teacher at Castine's middle school, he said Maine's leaders too-often overlook important subtleties in their understanding of the whales' situation.

For instance, McWeeny said, it would be technically correct to say there has not been a documented right whale entanglement in Maine gear since 2004. But, he said, a lack of sufficient marking and the poor condition of gear that's usually recovered from dead or injured whales makes it tough to trace any entanglement to its origin.

"Really less than 2% of the entanglements have been traced back to any fishery," McWeeny said. "So any fishery up and down the coast can say 'oh we've only had one or two, or we've never had a death or anything.' They all can say that."

The government has documented nearly 1,700 right whale entanglements over the decades, McWeeny said, but only managed to identify the gear on about 24. Meanwhile, Maine's lobster fleet puts more vertical rope in the water than any other east coast fishery. And federal regulators say that with so few right whales left, gear density is a prime factor in assessing the risk of harmful entanglements.

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Maine Department of Marine Resources
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The Maine Department of Marine Resources current and planned deployments of acoustic whale detectors going into Maine waters, including the Northeast Fishery Science Center deployments. The DMR deployments are being done in collaboration with the University of Maine. The red outline is the new seasonal restriction zone for lobstermen.

Recently, acoustic recorders in the water detected right whales off Maine's coast, from inside a zone called Lobster Management Area 1, where federal regulators have imposed new seasonal fishing restrictions. Maine's Commissioner of Marine Resources, Patrick Keliher, relayed that news to a group of lobstermen last month.

"Through the sound-acoustical work that we're doing here, we're hearing right whales moving through LMA 1. So we can't say that they're not here. There were whales seen inside [state waters close to shore] last year, we know they're here; we know they move through this area," Keliher said.

That acknowledgment might please the whale advocates. But Keliher said the state believes more data will demonstrate that right whales aren’t sticking around high-risk areas, and he put forward what the advocates see as that unprovable claim about entanglements.

Endangered right whale sighted off Peaks Island on Sept. 16, 2021

An endangered North Atlantic right whale was videotaped off Portland Harbor last month, a few miles off the coast. The animal was filmed just weeks before controversial new rules that aim to protect the species from entanglement with lobster gear go into effect.

"We're not seeing them congregating here and more importantly, we're not seeing them entangled in Maine gear," Keliher said.

McWeeny said members of his group are trying to correct the record when they can. Several of them recently met with Sen. King. They're also writing letters to the editor, and trying to speak with editorial page writers, with varying success, he said.

"I think our most important audience is the people in Maine, because I think the politicians are going to follow them," McWeeny said.

Within weeks, lawmakers will consider a proposal that does have support from lobstermen and whale advocates alike: creating a special fund of as much as $30 million to help lobstermen purchase gear that complies with the latest federal rules. And they'll also decide whether to directly pay for the lobster industry's legal expenses.

That would be in addition to the legal expenses the state is incurring to hire outside, expert counsel in its own efforts to challenge the new federal rules.