Maine Lobstermen To Feds: Our Industry Isn't What's Killing Endangered Right Whales

Aug 14, 2019

Angry Maine lobstermen are telling federal fisheries managers they want definitive proof that their gear is entangling endangered North Atlantic right whales. Until then, they say, the feds should back off from proposed rules that could force them to modify their gear and remove half their rope from the water.

More than 60 lobstermen turned out in Machias on Monday night for the first of four federal “scoping” meetings in Maine to discuss the proposed gear changes. Federal officials had hoped to hear specifics about how the new rules might change the way they harvest lobster, and what it might cost them.

But what they met was a chorus of criticism.

“Guesswork and conjecture, the whole thing,” says Richard Smith, a Beals lobstermen who condemned the regulators’ dependence on “best available science” to draw conclusions about where the whales are swimming without actually being able to trace any of their deaths specifically to entanglements with lobster gear from Maine.

Beals lobsterman Richard Smith speaks at a meeting in Machias Monday about new rules to protect endangered right whales.
Credit Fred Bever / Maine Public

“Your ‘best available data’ is the equivalent of getting drunk, shutting off the lights, and throwing darts at a ‘Where’s Waldo’ on the wall,” Smith says.

Others complained whale deaths appear to be happening hundreds of miles away in Canadian waters, where 20 of the animals have been found dead in the last three years.

“It’s just all a bunch of foolishness and if our neighbors to the north, Canada, can’t do at least what we’ve done I don’t think we ought to have to do anything,” says Joel Strout, a lobsterman from Harrington.

Under a trade agreement with Canada, that country must demonstrate by 2021 that its whale protection rules are comparable to those in the U.S. or suffer trade restrictions. But federal officials say that in the meantime, the U.S. government still must work to protect the whales, whose numbers, the latest data show, appear to have fallen below 400.

NOAA whale scientist Michael Asaro shows how the right whale population has declined to only about 400 whales. Asaro spoke at a meeting in Machias Monday.
Credit Fred Bever / Maine Public

Federal regulators have decided that for the species to survive, the number of deaths or serious injuries must be fewer than one a year — a rate that is far from being met.

“We are still exceeding the potential biological removal level for right whales,” says NOAA scientist Colleen Coogan.

Coogan acknowledges that trap rope from Maine has not been proven to have entangled whales, but audio recordings, satellite tracking and sightings show that they do swim off the Maine coast, she says, and until recently congregated in the Bay of Fundy nearly every year.

She says that the density of trap rope in Maine waters poses a high risk of severe injury.

“When there’s 600,000 lines, the chance of a whale interacting with your line might be low, but the chance of a whale interacting with line where’s there’s a lot of line, the chance goes up because there’s a lot of line. There’s only 400 whales,” Coogan says.

Despite their frustration, some lobstermen did offer insights on how the rules might affect their lives. They base those on experience with a previous requirement that they replace some of their floating lines with “sinking” ground lines designed to stay out of the whales’ way.

Charles Smith of Jonesport held up his left hand, where he says two fingers were cut off from wrestling with the sinking lines.

“That’s what happens to the ends of those fingers because it’s all chafed up and big messes come up,” he says.

Smith says the new lines had cost about $10,000. Before new rules are adopted, he says, more should be done to identify exactly where whales are being inured.

“I would like to see the state make sure that we get separated from everyone else on our markings, and let us prove that it’s not us that’s killing the whales,” he says.

Federal regulators are proposing that each state in the New England fishery adopt distinctive gear markings, to better track how and where the animals are becoming entangled. It’s one area of agreement between some lobstermen and conservationists such as Sean Mahoney, director of the Conservation Law Foundation’s Maine chapter.

“The whales that have been observed have almost 100 percent shown signs of some entanglement over their lifetime. I’m not pointing fingers at anybody, but it’s just a fact. And that’s a real cause of their decline. So something has to be done. You know, extinction is forever,” he says.

The Conservation Law Foundation is one of several groups that has filed suit to force the government to protect the whales. The federal “scoping sessions’ for public comment on the proposed gear changes continue in Ellsworth on Tuesday and in Waldoboro and South Portland later this week.

Originally published Aug. 13, 2019 at 6:24 a.m. ET.