The annual Maine Fishermen's Forum is underway in Rockport, where the intertwined fates of lobstermen and endangered North Atlantic right whales are a hot topic.
The executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, Patrice McCarron, had a blunt message for members at its annual meeting, held during the forum Friday at the Samoset Inn: "It's all going to suck."
McCarron has spent more than a year trying to fend off threats of pending federal action to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales from entanglement with the lobster fleet's trap and buoy ropes. She told hundreds of fishermen that the MLA continues to oppose the gear restrictions being floated by state and federal regulators. And she pushed back against calls by some to walk away from the process altogether.
"The question is how do we come out intact?" she said. "Probably something different from what we have now or what we want, but how do we come out with something that we can build a sustained future for our fisheries and our communities? It's kind of an existential thing that we're fighting for."
Vinalhaven lobsterman Addison Ames Jr. noted that federal lawsuits brought by conservation groups are driving much of the debate. He suggested that the MLA should try to turn attention away from the lobster fishery and seek more focus on how global warming is affecting the whales' fate.
"What I can understand from the new science, ropes and ships are not the biggest threats to right whales," he said. “The biggest threats on the planet to whales in general (is) CO2. If we don't get a handle on the CO2 and do all the protection that we want — tells this to the judge please — it'll make no difference."
McCarron agreed that environmental factors are a huge problem. But, she says, the federal laws in question don't address the environment — they address direct human interactions with the whales.
She got some backing from Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen's Association. Casoni says that a decade ago, when federal regulators were considering measures to protect whales off Cape Cod, lobstermen there refused to consider anything but the status quo.
The feds chose instead to completely shut down a massive swathe of ocean to trap fishing. The result, she said: "We have a closure of 3,000 square miles for three months."
Casoni encouraged Maine fishermen to participate in every possible public proceeding on the issue. And later in the day, they did get a chance to directly question officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Industry advocates critiqued the way science is being applied by NOAA, and some fishermen said simply that they see no evidence that the whales are swimming through the waters of Maine's lobster fishery. And Deer Isle lobsterman Julie Eaton told them proposed new rules that would require more traps per rope offshore would cost some fishermen limbs and even their lives.
"You might as well say 'yup, that guy's not coming home. That woman, not coming home. That one's going to lose an arm, '" she said. "This is reality for us."
Federal officials say it will be July before they propose a final rule. A federal judge, meanwhile, is expected to make a preliminary ruling as early as next week on a lawsuit brought by conservation groups seeking faster action to protect the whales.