The Maine Lobstermen's Association says it is reversing its initial support for a proposal to reduce the risk that lobster-fishing gear will entangle critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.
This spring, the Maine Lobstermen's Association delegation to a federal panel meeting in Providence agreed to a proposal that would reduce by 60 percent the lobster industry's contribution to the whale's risk of injury or death. That consensus agreement won approval from a wide array of stakeholders on the so-called "Take Reduction Team." It's made up of some 40 lobstermen, processors, conservationists, state and federal regulators, and scientists.
The proposal is now the subject of a federal rulemaking process and could mean that Maine lobstermen will be forced to remove half of their trap-rope from the water and reduce the number of traps they fish.
Now some previous supporters of the prospect have changed their minds.
"The assumption about what is causing risk to right whales is flawed,” says MLA Executive Director Patrice McCarron. “So the management approach put forth by the federal government is flawed."
McCarron — who originally raised her hand in support — now says she and other delegates are saying 'no.' That's based on a new 10-page analysis she produced, which she says shows the National Marine Fisheries Service was basing its risk assessment on faulty data. She says the agency underreported the relative risk that other gear pose for right whales. That gear includes Canada's snow crab pot-ropes and fixed nets for catching fish such as cod and haddock in U.S. waters.
"We do know that we're not the only problem, and we're very likely not the biggest problem,” McCarron says. “And the agency really needs to take a step back and look at all of the risks, and do something comprehensive because right whales are critically endangered. I mean this is really, really important stuff."
McCarron and four Maine lobstermen on the federally convened panel are now withdrawing their support for the initial lobster gear restrictions. McCaron says she is hopeful that other members of the team will follow suit.
But some other members are challenging her views.
"I feel like Patrice is deflecting the argument a little bit," says Amy Knowlton, a New England Aquarium whale expert.
Knowlton is currently posted in Lubec, from where she and other scientists are trying to document right whale presence in the Bay of Fundy. Last week, the team sighted five of them near Grand Manan Island.
Knowlton notes that McCaron's ranking of risk is based on cases in which whale injuries or fatalities can be documented, while in the vast majority, the cause cannot be traced.
"Most of them don't have gear attached, but many have severe injuries,” Knowlton says. “The injuries have become worse in recent decades as ropes have gotten stronger. I think there's many things we'll never know the answer to where all these events are happening, but we know whales travel far and wide, so these events are probably happening far and wide as well, and there is some evidence to that effect."
Knowlton and others on the Take Reduction Team argue that even an occasional whale encounter with Maine's lobster fishery, which has the densest concentration of underwater rope in the Northeast, risks injury and fatality. And that they say that risk poses an existential threat to the population of roughly 400 whales left in the world.
"I do not want to literally talk this species to death," says Sharon Young, a panelist from the Humane Society of the U.S.
Young cast the sole 'no' vote to the original proposal — because she says it wasn't strong enough. She says the Maine Lobstermen's Association appears to be responding to recent political pressure from another group of Maine harvesters, the Maine Lobstermen's Union.
"The time to have stood up and said 'no we can't support this' would have been in the Take Reduction Team, rather than waiting until after the Take Reduction Team when the Maine Lobstermen's union approached politicians, and got political forces involved," Young says.
The Lobstermen's Association's Patrice McCarron says that her analysis was based on new data, and the change in her position is a response to false information, not political pressure.
Asked for comment on the latest controversy over lobsters and whales, a spokesperson for Maine's Department of Marine Resources said only that the agency appreciated the Association's analysis and is performing its own. Federal officials, meanwhile, say they will respond this week.