The state’s biggest lobster trade group will not support Maine’s right whale protection plan, saying it asks the state’s most valuable fishery to make concessions that exceed the risk it poses to the endangered species.

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association staked out its position on the Maine Department of Marine Resources’ proposal with a board vote Thursday night. Director Patrice McCarron would not disclose the vote breakdown, calling that a private matter. The group did, however, release a statement about why it couldn’t support the plan.

“It seeks reductions that exceed the documented risk posed by the Maine lobster fishery,” the statement said of the state plan. “The MLA conducted a thorough analysis of fishing gear removed from entangled right whales which revealed that lobster is the least prevalent gear.”

The MLA has decided to come up with its own whale protection plan based on right-sized risks posed by the industry that it will submit to the National Marine Fisheries Service. The federal agency is drafting a new regulation, which is due out early next year, to protect right whales from fishing entanglements.

With this vote, Maine’s whale plan has failed to win support from either of the state’s big lobster groups. The Maine Lobstering Union has aggressively opposed the plan, accusing the state of caving to pressure from federal regulators and environmental groups.

That leaves Marine Resources Commissioner Pat Keliher in the position of selling Maine’s whale protection plan to federal regulators without the backing of the state’s lobster industry.

The state plan proposes to reduce entanglement risk by requiring all lobster fishermen to add weak points to their buoy lines so entangled whales can break free, add purple marks to buoy lines to distinguish Maine gear from that of other states, complete detailed fishing reports and submit to vessel tracking.

Lobstermen who fish in deeper waters would have to add more traps to their buoy lines the farther they fish from shore, a practice known as trawling up. The Department of Marine Resources estimates its proposal would reduce the number of buoy lines that could entangle a whale in the Gulf of Maine by about 25 percent.

The agency estimates it would reduce the fishery’s risk to right whales by about 58 percent. Reductions proposed by a federally appointed whale protection team in April called for a 60 percent risk reduction, achieved by a 50 percent reduction in buoy lines and the use of weak rope.

The state plan is a “tremendous improvement” over the task force plan, but it’s still too much, MLA said.

‘ROLLING THE DICE’

At industry meetings this week, Keliher called the state plan Maine’s “line in the sand.” If federal regulators reject the plan, and propose a regulation demanding even fewer buoy lines, Keliher said Maine would have no choice but to fight the regulation in court.

But he also has warned that Maine will be “rolling the dice” if its whale protection plan doesn’t include some concessions sought by federal regulators. Deep-pocketed environmental groups have filed suit in federal court to compel the government to protect the right whale from fishing gear entanglements.

The federal judge presiding over that lawsuit has used dramatic language in recent right whale rulings, citing the role of entanglements in pushing the right whale to the brink of extinction. That suggests the judge will not be satisfied with a regulation that doesn’t include buoy line reductions, he said.

On Friday, Keliher defended the state’s plan, saying it reflects the department’s own assessment of data associated with the fishery’s risk posed to right whales, not just the analysis done by a federal task force created to protect the whale or that done by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Keliher said he is creating a working group to address lobstermen’s safety and operational concerns about using weak points. At the meetings, he promised the final state plan would exempt lobstermen who are not able to safely add additional traps to their buoy lines.

The agency will consider the comments solicited from fishermen at this week’s meetings before putting the final touches on its plan, Keliher said. The state has until the end of the month to submit its plan to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

And it’s not just the offshore fishermen who would be facing riskier working conditions under the buoy line requirements included in the state plan, McCarron said.

“Some operations are flexible, and could survive if they added traps or moved to new bottom, but most guys are fishing as hard as they can, pushing their crews, their equipment and their boats as far as they can safely go,” McCarron said. “Pushing them past that point is dangerous.”

Putting Maine lobstermen at risk is unfair when they are not the reason for the whale’s plight, she said.

Federal regulators blame lobstermen for half of the right whale deaths that cannot be linked to any one particular fishery, she said. That’s a big number, since 75 percent of the dead whales don’t have enough rope on them to attribute the cause of death to a specific fishery.

Regulators haven’t fully investigated or documented other threats to right whales, including Canadian lobster and crab fisheries, shipping vessels, gillnet fishing, seismic testing and offshore wind projects, McCarron said.

The government’s own data prove Maine lobstermen pose the smallest threat to whales, McCarron said. For example, in 2019, scientists have documented 10 right whale deaths. Nine were found floating dead in Canadian waters. The one found dead off New York was entangled in Canadian fishing gear.

A total closure of the Maine lobster fishery this year would not have saved a single right whale, she said.

“Of course we’ll pitch in, but you can’t expect Maine lobstermen to do it all,” McCarron said. “That’s why we can’t support the state plan. It is based on the idea that we are on the hook for us and everybody else, too, and that’s unfair. That kind of thinking won’t help the whale, either.”

Scientists estimate only 411 right whales remain. The species has been on the brink of extinction before, most recently in 1992, when its population bottomed out at 295. It rebounded to about 500 in 2010, but low calving rates, ship strikes and fishing line entanglements have sent its numbers tumbling, yet again.

Even though the chance of entanglement in U.S. fishing gear may be low, regulators say even one whale death a year could push the species to extinction, given its low number of breeding-age females and the increasing amount of time that now passes between births.

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