Regulators will consider removing up to 40 percent of the lines that link seabed lobster traps to buoys on the surface, taking the step in the hopes of protecting the endangered North Atlantic right whale and avoiding federal restrictions on the lobster fishery.

Fishermen who serve on the American Lobster Management Board of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission say the action is required to prevent the federal government from declaring the lobster fishery a threat to North Atlantic right whales, whose population has dwindled to 411 because of changes in habitat, low calving rates, ship strikes and entanglement in fishing lines. If the federal government places a “jeopardy” finding on the species, it would likely trigger far more burdensome restrictions on Maine’s $1.4 billion a year lobster industry, board members said.

Better that fishery participants decide what concessions they can live with than leave it up to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, they said.

“I don’t want NOAA making decisions on what this lobster fishery should look like in the future,” said Patrick Keliher, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources and a member of the American Lobster Management Board.

On Tuesday, the lobster board voted unanimously to launch what is likely to be a months-long regulatory process that will consider how the lobster fishery can reduce its impact on right whales. At the top of its list will be how to reduce the number of vertical lines in the water through outright trap reductions, seasonal closures and/or fishing gear changes that weaken the rope and make it easier for a tangled whale to break free.

It also will consider cracking down on lobstermen who fish over their trap limits, and requiring individuals to report vertical line and trap use.

Other governmental agencies are considering similar measures to try to protect the right whale, but lobster board members made it clear they are considering such action to try to save the lobster industry, which plays a huge economic, historical and cultural role along the New England shoreline. In Maine, the industry employs about 5,500 people catching, packing and selling the more than 100 million pounds of lobster landed here.

Maine lobstermen would rather have right whale concessions crafted by the American Lobster Management Board than the court or National Marine Fisheries Service, said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. But the trade group won’t know if it can support the board’s proposals until they are finalized and fully vetted, McCarron said. Many of her members feel they are being unfairly blamed for problems caused by other fisheries.

“This is a really tough business for the lobster industry,” McCarron said. “We do acknowledge that we play a role and that our industry needs to change.”

Environmental groups said the range of options the lobster board is willing to consider do not go far enough. Attorney Jane Davenport of Defenders of Wildlife, one of the three environmental groups that filed suit against the National Marine Fisheries Service on behalf of the right whale in January 2018, urged the board to stick with the 50 percent vertical line reduction ceiling that one of its working groups explored last fall.

“This is the time for bold action, not conservative action,” Davenport said.

COMPETING PROPOSALS

With the unanimous vote, the lobster board and its parent agency, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, are entering a crowded and contentious arena. NOAA has one working group examining the fishery’s impact on right whales under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and another one examining doing the same thing under the broader and some say more whale-friendly legal framework of the Endangered Species Act.

The marine mammal group is voting on its final recommendations next month, but it is the work of the endangered species group, which was launched in response to the lawsuits filed after a spate of right whale deaths in 2017, that worries the lobster industry most. The marine mammal group must reduce serious or lethal injuries to right whales, while the second must do that as well as guard against a decline in reproduction.

Whale advocates say entanglements drain the energy of females of calving age so much that they reproduce less often, if at all. A typical right whale should calve every three to four years, they say, but the time between pregnancies has now lengthened to 10 years, Davenport said. A female right whale has only a 5 percent chance of avoiding an entanglement in a vertical line over that 10-year calving interval, she said.

Under an Endangered Species Act review, the widespread evidence of sub-lethal entanglements alone could trigger a jeopardy finding, Davenport said..

“As a matter of biology, entanglements are already causing jeopardy to the North Atlantic right whale,” Davenport said.

Penelope Overton can be contacted at 791-6463 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PLOvertonPPHv


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