AUGUSTA — Maine believes its right whale protection plan isn’t getting enough credit for reducing risk to the critically endangered species.

Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher, center in vest, speaks to members of the Lobster Advisory Council in Augusta Wednesday. Penelope Overton/Staff Writer

The state Department of Marine Resources believes that its right whale plan, with its range of lobster fishing restrictions meant to avoid gear entanglements, clocks in right around the 60 percent risk reduction target sought by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Federal regulators – who  determined that the state plan reduced risk by just 52 percent – failed to give Maine credit for all its proposed protection measures, as well as those enacted since the last federal right whale review in 2014, Marine Resources Commissioner Pat Keliher said Wednesday.

Keliher spelled out his concerns with the federal evaluation of Maine’s plan during a meeting with members of the Lobster Advisory Council Wednesday evening and in a letter to the National Marine Fisheries Service that he sent earlier in the day asking for additional risk reduction credit.

“We respectfully request that credit be assigned to these proposed and existing risk-reduction measures as Fisheries evaluates the proposal that Maine has submitted,” Keliher wrote in the letter to Michael Pentony, regional administrator of the Greater Atlantic Regional Office of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

All of the uncredited risk reductions take place within inshore state waters that have traditionally been exempted from federal right whale rules, including a proposal to require a weak point in every buoy line set within exempt waters to allow a whale to break free of a potential entanglement.

With this included, Maine’s whale protection plan achieves at least a 55 percent risk reduction, Keliher said.

Protection measures established in these same inshore waters since the last right whale review – no float rope, a 30-day limit to soak times and sinking line requirements – will bring Maine “right up to or even above” the 60 percent federal risk reduction target, Keliher said.

The state agency is working on calculating the value of those already enacted protections, he said. Maine had not planned to seek credit for those, but reversed course after learning Massachusetts was seeking risk reduction credit for fishing area closures put in place in Massachusetts Bay in 2014.

At the council meeting, Keliher warned members that state lawyers had told him to prepare for a court ruling in the first phase of the right whale lawsuits filed by environmental groups in the next two to four weeks. The groups accuse the fisheries service of not doing enough to protect right whales from entanglement.

“The judge has enough to rule on now,” Keliher said. “If he (finds the government isn’t doing enough), then I think it’s going to get messy in the courts. It’s really hard to say. If the species is found in jeopardy, they need a reasonable and prudent alternative. … That’s where our plan comes in.”

If the judge rules the federal government is doing enough, the lobster industry’s whale problems end, at least for now. If the judge rules against the government, and finds the species is in jeopardy, the trial moves to the remedy phase, when the court can impose its own right whale protection rules.

Maine wants to make sure that the fisheries service and the court have a plan that the industry had a hand in writing instead of leaving whale protections up to federal regulators – who tend to favor fishing area closures or trap reductions – or the whale-friendly federal judge presiding over the aggregated lawsuits, Keliher said.

Council members asked Keliher what Maine would do if federal regulators refused to give Maine’s plan more risk reduction credit than the 52 percent outlined in a January agency letter. He said Maine could amend the state plan if necessary, but that he didn’t want to give up any ground that isn’t absolutely required.

Scientists believe only 406 right whales remain. The species has been on the brink of extinction before, most recently in 1992, when its numbers fell to 295. It rebounded to about 500 in 2010, but low calving rates, ship strikes and entanglements have since sent its numbers tumbling.

Regulators now believe that even one death a year could doom the right whale to extinction.

Since 2017, at least 30 right whales have been seriously injured or killed, mostly in Canada. Eight incidents were attributed to ship strikes, including one in U.S. waters, but none can be linked to the Maine lobster industry. The most recent known Maine entanglement occurred in 2004, but the whale survived.

Maine’s whale plan calls for cutting the number of buoy lines that could entangle whales by setting a minimum number of traps fished on each line, with the minimum number of traps increasing farther from shore, and requiring weak points in buoy lines to help entangled whales break free.

Weak points are sleeves, splices and knots added to surface-to-seabed ropes that reduce the strength of the line so adult whales can break free if entangled. Maine counted on weak points to make up for its decision to propose a 25 percent buoy line reduction compared to the 50 percent cut endorsed by the fisheries service.

The plan also seeks federal approval for alternative fishing restrictions, or conservation equivalencies, that achieve the same level of risk reduction in cases where a statewide whale-inspired fishing rule would put lobstermen in physical danger or run needlessly afoul of regional fishing practices.

The state argues that careful use of alternative protections to achieve the same conservation benefit could protect whales, fishermen and the state’s $485 million-a-year industry. The fisheries service shot down the concept when Maine proposed it five years ago, but in his letter, Pentony now said regulators want to learn more.

Keliher plans to visit each of Maine’s seven organized lobster fishing territories in April to open discussions about conservation equivalencies. Each region of the state fishes differently, based on tides, geography and weather, so what works in one region may not in another.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.