ROCKPORT — Federal fishing regulators found themselves in the hot seat at this year’s annual Maine Fisherman’s Forum as the lobster industry sounded off about looming right whale rules that threaten to upend the country’s most valuable fishery.

Phillip Torrey, a sixth-generation lobsterman from Winter Harbor, told regulators it was unfair to ask Maine fishermen to give up any more than they already have to protect the endangered whale without proof that they are the ones causing them harm.

“If you could show us that we were killing right whales, we would do whatever you asked,” Torrey told regulators. “If it was a a court case, no district attorney in the world could put us to trial because they’d say they have no evidence against us, Maine fishermen.”

Torrey was one of more than 150 people who turned out to see the National Marine Fisheries Service field questions about its right whale policy, like why impose fishing restrictions on the $485 million-a-year lobster industry when data shows that it is Canadian fishermen and ships that are killing whales.

Fishing gear entanglement is the cause of most known right whale deaths or serious injuries, said Regional Administrator Michael Pentony. The agency is issuing draft regulations for the lobster industry this summer because it represents at least 90 percent of the gear in U.S. whale habitat, he said.

But the agency is currently working on another policy – a biological opinion of whether government action is threatening the existence of an endangered species – that is likely to require eight or nine other U.S. fisheries along the East Coast to do more for the whale, too, Pentony said.

“We need to prioritize how we are going to attack this issue,” Pentony said.

Canada is likely responsible for most recent known whale deaths, he said, but it is taking corrective action to deal with the whale’s new migratory patterns. It has vowed to temporarily close waters to fishing and shipping when a whale is sighted. A repeat sighting will trigger a season-long closure.

But both countries must do more to protect a species that does not recognize national boundaries, he said.

“We collectively need to dig ourselves out of this hole, to dig the right whale out of the hole,” Pentony told the audience, calling for both nations to work together to improve the whale’s situation. “That hole gets deeper with every death, whether it happens in U.S. waters or Canadian waters.” 

The agency is reviewing speed restrictions for large vessels traveling through U.S. waters during the times of the year when right whales are usually present to see if they are working, said Regional Administrator Chris Oliver. Twenty-six percent of known whale deaths are caused by ship strikes.

Kristan Porter, a Cutler lobsterman who heads up the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said the modeling tool the agency had come up with to determine risk had been sharply criticized by a team of independent scientists during a peer review conducted late last year.

But Jon Hare, the science and research director of the Northeast Regional Science Center, said a peer review is all about inviting constructive criticism. The agency will use the reviewers’ suggestions to make the modeling tool better. The reviewers concluded the model was a useful tool, he said.

Fishermen expressed frustration and anxiety over the agency’s conclusion that Maine’s plan to protect right whales by using weak ropes and putting more traps on fewer buoy lines had fallen short of a federal requirement to reduce the fishery’s risk to whales by 60 percent.

If the state cannot come up with additional protections, and the New England lobstering states’ proposals fail to add up to at least a 60 percent reduction in risk to whales, Pentony said Friday, his agency would have to implement additional right whale protection measures in offshore waters.

Stonington lobsterman Julie Eaton urged regulators to stop playing dangerous games with fishermen’s lives and livelihoods. We don’t want to see any animal go extinct, but blaming us for the right whale’s decline is like blaming Mexico for the plight of the polar bear, she said.

Instead of making Maine do more, and requiring fishermen to risk getting entangled themselves in buoy lines laden with far too many traps, perhaps the agency should require other states and countries to enact the whale protections that Maine lobstermen have already implemented, she said.

“It scares the hell out of me,” Eaton said of the agency’s 60 percent risk reduction requirement. “You’re going to kill us. People are going to get caught in rope, in traps, and we’re not coming home. Please don’t do that to us.”

Maine Lobstering Union representative Dave Sullivan accused the agency of caving to environmental organizations when it should be defending an industry that has already done so much to protect the whale by getting rid of floating rope that could entangle whales and using sinking rope between traps.

“We’re tired of saying we’re going to do more, do more, do more,” Sullivan said. “Where does it end?”

Oliver said he was trying to keep the fishery alive in the face of numerous whale protection lawsuits. The industry may not like the agency’s whale protection measures, he said, but it would probably like a court-ordered whale protection plan even less.

“I think that people are finding it a hard pill to swallow,” Oliver said at the start of the 90-minute session. “But if we don’t do something, we’re probably going to have the court come in and do something maybe much more unpalatable than what we are proposing.”

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

Regulators say 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. None of the 30 can be attributed to the Maine lobster industry. The most recent Maine entanglement occurred in 2004.

This year’s Maine Fisherman’s Forum took place Thursday through Saturday in Rockport.


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