A new front is opening up in the public relations war over whether the lobster industry should make big changes to protect the endangered North Atlantic Right Whale.
An international marine conservation group called Oceana has released an online video that aims to raise awareness of the threats that fishing gear and ships pose for the survival of the planet's remaining North Atlantic right whales.
Actor Sam Waterston makes the pitch, over footage of lobster buoys clustered off Harpswell, followed by, rapid-fire images of bloodied whales that were maimed or killed by fishing rope or ship strikes.
"New threats continue to emerge,” says Waterson. “They could go extinct in your lifetime. But there's hope, if we act now, before it's too late. Join Oceana to save North Atlantic right whales from extinction."
The same day the conservation group’s ad was released, the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative introduced its own ad.
"Maine lobstermen have a long-standing commitment to the health of the environment and the protection of right whales."
It's a distinct counter-narrative: Maine lobstermen are willing to make gear changes, and are actively testing new types of rope that could be easier for whales to break free of.
"That's why Maine is working in collaboration with scientists and fishermen to identify and evaluate vertical line types and configurations that are safer for whales, while maintaining the strength needed for safe hauling practices. “'Big thing with weak rope is it makes it kind of unsafe for my crew. It has the tendency to whip back when it breaks.'"
That last voice is Steuben lobsterman Mike Sargent, who in the spring participated in a federally-convened panel that recommended new gear rules, including requiring Maine lobstermen to remove half their rope from the water. He and some other Mainers on the panel have since rescinded their support, saying they were working from flawed data.
The new ads mark a public escalation in the high-stakes debate between conservationists, federal regulators, state officials and the powerful lobster industry over how best to preserve the whales and the lobstermen's way of life.
"The reality of entanglements is often left behind by the descriptions that are put into scientific reports or media accounts," says the manager of the Oceana campaign, Gilbert Brogan.
Brogan acknowledges that his group only recently got involved in the issue, but it's now launching a broad public relations and lobbying campaign to pressure governments in the U.S. and Canada to do more to protect the whales.
"Visuals, graphics, videos and photographs of entanglements are often shocking too even those (who) study these things,” says Brogan. “We want to make sure that everyone understands what we're talking about when we're talking about right whale entanglements."
The lobster industry's chief PR booster, meanwhile, the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, often focuses on promotional efforts, such as connecting lobstermen and chefs.
"But we're also responsible for management of the reputation of the industry," says Marianne LaCroix, the executive director of the collaborative.
Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative is financed by a surcharge on commercial lobster licenses. LaCroix says the group did not know the Oceana ad was coming, but was preparing for something like it nonetheless.
"I think there's some confusion when people hear that the industry is pushing back against regulations, I think there's the impression that fishermen or the industry in general don't want to protect right whales, or it's not important to them, and that's not the case at all,” says LaCroix. “So the effort now is to make sure that any changes made or any new regulations are proportionate to the risk posed by this fishery."
The collaborative has posted two online ads now that emphasize lobstermen's conservation ethic. Oceana says it is making its ads available as a public service, but is not paying to push them on social media or television.
Originally published 5:20 p.m. September 13, 2019