Federal officials recently released plans to all but eliminate risk to the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, but Maine lobster industry leaders fear the plan will only shift the risk of the extinction from the whales to the lobstermen. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its final biological opinion May 27 – a requirement under the federal Endangered Species Act. This document becomes the basis of rule-making surrounding the specific species, in this case, the North Atlantic right whale. 

Officials found that, provided they meet the reduction targets in the implementation framework, none of the 10 fisheries included in the document, among them the lobster fishery, were “likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the North Atlantic right whales.”

But it’s the risk reduction target, an aggressive 98 percent, that Maine Department of Marine Resources officials said means only one thing – “a complete reinvention of the fishery as we know it.” 

The conservation framework, an addition to the 582-page biological opinion, creates a four-phased approach to all but eliminate the death and serious injury of the whales in federally managed fishing grounds.

The first phase calls for a 60 percent reduction in right whale deaths and serious injuries this year.

The details for this first phase are expected to come later this summer or early fall in the form of the North Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan, a draft of which was released late last year. 

The proposal includes plans to reduce the number of vertical lines, introducing weak insertions or weak rope into buoy lines, and adding additional seasonal restricted areas that are closed to buoy lines but allow ropeless fishing, among others. The plan does not include measures to help prevent ship strikes or reduce mortality and serious injuries in Canadian waters, which account for the majority of right whale deaths. 

The second phase adds rules and restrictions to federal gill-net and other trap-pot fisheries and the third and fourth phases of the framework include an additional 60 percent reduction in 2025 and another 87 percent in 2030 – in total a roughly 98 percent reduction over the 10-year span.

Patrice McCarron, director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, fears the industry can’t sustain that level of change. 

“If you look at the changes we’ve made over the last 25 years, there’s not a lot left to give,” she said.

By the final phase, “I don’t see how we would even have a fishery. There’s not a lot of obvious ways we could do this and still have our fleet intact,” she said. “It’s really hugely concerning.”

McCarron thinks the lobster and trap-pot fisheries are being forced to bear the brunt of the responsibility for a problem they didn’t create – lobstermen have been saying for years that the right whales aren’t in Maine waters.

There are fewer than 400 right whales left in the world. 

 Since 2017, 33 right whales have been killed, according to NOAA. Of those, 21 were in Canada and 12 were in the U.S. 

Ten incidents were attributed to ship strikes, including two in U.S. waters, but none can be linked to the Maine lobster industry. 

“We’re essentially being held accountable for all the reasons whales are dying,” McCarron said, “but we cannot (fix this) alone.”

According to the Department of Marine Resources, research shows that even in the complete absence of all U.S. federal fisheries, the right whale population will continue to decline if mortalities in Canada remain high and the calving rates remain low.

The plan relies on the worst-case scenario holding for the next 50 years, McCarron said, so officials made room for “adaptive management.”

Within the next 10 years, two evaluation periods are proposed to consider changes to the whale population, calving rates, and reductions in mortality from other sources, including vessel strikes and Canada. If these figures improve, that could lower the total risk reduction required of U.S. fisheries.

These evaluation periods will be crucial, McCarron said, noting that the agency has committed to looking at new information but has not specified how that new information will be obtained.

“There needs to be a corresponding commitment to getting new research,” she said, and added that the Maine Lobstermen’s Association is “committed to putting pressure on the agency” to make sure that information is gathered.

Maine officials have been concerned about the biological opinion and what it could mean for the fishery for months. 

Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, told the fisheries service earlier this year that the document’s target reduction of 98 percent would be “devastating to the viability of Maine’s fixed gear fisheries.” 

The only way to achieve such a figure would require the state to “completely reinvent the fishery and convert largely to ropeless fishing,” he said, an “untenable solution” as the technology is still under development and is expensive. To convert the entire fleet would cost an estimated half a billion dollars or more. 

But federal officials are interested in the technology’s potential.

The biological opinion calls for NOAA to develop a roadmap to ropeless fishing in the next year that considers research needs as well as the economic, operational and enforcement aspects of ropeless fishing. The document suggests that the technology could be one management tool used to achieve the required risk reduction, the department said.

Ben Martens, director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, is optimistic that the fishery can weather the gathering storm.

There will certainly be changes, he said. Certain types of fishing in certain areas are going to change dramatically, and while it won’t be easy,  Martens said they can get through it if they work together as a community.

“This is a threat; this is a hurdle,” he said, “but it’s not insurmountable.”


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