Nonprofit group Mainers Guarding Right Whales launched a new billboard campaign this week to inform tourists that “lobster dinners at seaside harbors come at a steep price to North Atlantic right whales,” according to organization officials.

The billboard, which will be up for the rest of the month (two weeks in one location and two in another), is in Massachusetts and asks, “Is your lobster whale-safe?”

The billboard asks drivers to text 72345 for more information. The number links to the organization’s website and the campaign for a “whale-safe” designation for U.S. lobster.

Currently, no such designation exists, but the group is fighting to change that and more with the new awareness campaign.

“We believe if we can educate and inform travelers about the near extinction of right whales and the cause, they will take action and help protect the whales,” Barbara Skapa, founder and executive director of Mainers Guarding Right Whales, said in the release.

The organization paid $3,750 for two billboards, which will run for two weeks each, with the first facing northbound traffic at one location along U.S. Route 1 until Aug. 16 and the other along Interstate 95 from Aug. 16 to the end of the month.

Beyond simply supporting their mission, Mainers Guarding Right Whales urges consumers to ask for whale-safe lobster when buying lobster and encourage lobstermen to use ropeless fishing technology or lighter ropes to let whales break free of entanglement.

It also recommends consumers buy their lobster from a scuba diver (which is illegal in Maine, but not in Massachusetts), support the Marine Stewardship Council in certifying whale-safe lobster, eat only Marine Stewardship Council-certified seafood and consider avoiding lobster until there is a certified whale-safe designation.

The North Atlantic right whale is critically endangered – only about 366 of the whales are still alive, having lost more than 10 percent of their population in under five years because of fishing entanglements, ship strikes and low calving rates.

An estimated 85 percent of right whales show signs of entanglements, according to officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

But Maine lobstermen have long contended that not only are they not causing the problems, they aren’t seeing right whales in Maine waters.

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

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

The country’s lobster fishery has long been heralded as an example of a sustainable fishery, largely thanks to measures implemented locally, including minimum and maximum size restrictions to protect both juveniles and breeding stock, prohibitions on keeping females with visible eggs on their tails and statewide trap limits.

According to Marianne LaCroix, director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, the “rhetoric around Maine lobster’s role in harming right whales does not reflect the facts.”

“It’s unfortunate that this campaign ignores the decades of cooperation from Maine lobstermen and proactive changes they have made to protect right whales,” LaCroix said, citing other protective measures including eliminating surface rope, setting more traps on each buoy line to reduce vertical lines in the water, incorporating weak links to allow whales to break free if they become entangled, and closures in areas where whales are known to aggregate.

The campaign also “provides confusing and sometimes inaccurate information for consumers who are trying to make good choices in the foods they eat,” LaCroix said. “Sustainability and preserving the marine environment are essential to the culture of lobstering – values and practices passed down through generations.”

Maine’s lobster fishery has multiple “sustainable” designations from the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, Monterey Bay Aquarium and the federal government. The sustainable certification from the Marine Stewardship Council was suspended last year after a court case that highlighted the National Marine Fisheries Service’s procedural failure to provide the proper documentation to authorize the fishery.

Industry officials hope the certification will be restored soon, now that a new “biological opinion” has been finalized.

Plans to help protect the critically endangered whales are underway, with the proposed North Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan, which calls for a 60 percent reduction in right whale deaths and serious injuries this year, and the Final Biological Opinion from NOAA, released in May, which increases that target to 98 percent over the next 10 years.

The details for the take-reduction plan are expected to come later this summer or in early fall. A hotly contested draft of the plan was released late last year.

The proposal includes plans to reduce the number of vertical lines, introduce weak insertions or weak rope into buoy lines, and add additional seasonal restricted areas that are closed to buoy lines but would 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 biological opinion’s conservation framework 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.

Ropeless lobster fishing technology allows lobster traps to rise to the surface after activation via smart phone signals, Mainers Guarding Right Whales said in its news release.

Mainers Guarding Right Whales also believes the new technology is the solution to rope and gear entanglements, despite its costs, citing in its news release, “promising trials” in Canada and elsewhere in New England. Ropeless fishing has not been tested in Maine.

Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, criticized what he called a “PR stunt” for oversimplifying the complex challenge of transitioning to ropeless fishing from the testing phase to a commercial-scale operation.

Keliher has, on multiple occasions, voiced serious concerns about the technology, which is still under development and is expensive – it would cost an estimated half a billion dollars or more to convert the state’s entire fleet.

Keliher said previously that ropeless fishing is an “untenable solution” that would require them to “completely reinvent the fishery.”

“Ropeless fishing technology is not currently a viable option,” he said in a statement on Tuesday. “The technology must be further developed to ensure that all fixed and mobile gear fleets can locate ropeless lobster gear to avoid conflict and lost gear. Enforcement of fisheries with ropeless gear is also a hurdle, with many unanswered questions. Marine Patrol will need to be equipped with technology to locate, retrieve, and set back gear, an enforcement action which is critical to the management of this valuable resource.”

But Skapa does not appear deterred.

“The fishing industry in Maine has a long history of adapting to change in the face of new challenges, and we believe with the right support it will do just that,” she said in the release.

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