A record number of right whale killings this summer has put environmental groups on the offensive, potentially leading to stricter regulations for Maine lobstermen, even as most of the animals turn up dead in Canadian waters.

A group of environmental organizations has notified federal officials they intend to sue if regulatory agencies fail to better protect the endangered species, following what’s believed to be one of the deadliest summers for North Atlantic right whales in centuries.

Maine lobstermen fear that a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service could result in more costly restrictions on how they fish, even though none of the 16 right whale deaths have been directly linked to the American lobster fishery. Twelve of the whale deaths occurred in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence, where that country’s snow crab fishery has been cited by experts as a likely factor in several of the deaths.

The remaining four were found off Cape Cod.

With this year’s deaths, the total population of North Atlantic right whales is estimated at fewer than 450.

Early this month, the four environmental organizations sent a letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Chris Oliver, head of the federal fisheries service, saying that federal regulators are violating the Endangered Species Act by not doing more to protect North Atlantic right whales. The groups specifically called on regulators to determine whether additional restrictions should be placed on the American lobster fishery in order to prevent whales from getting entangled in lobster gear.

The groups also sent a letter to federal officials in Canada, which does not threaten legal action but urges them to take action to better protect right whales.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Humane Society of the United States, and Whale and Dolphin Conservation jointly sent the letters.

“If [the fisheries service] does not take action within 60 days to remedy its violations, our organizations will pursue litigation,” the groups wrote to U.S. officials. “However, we urge [the service] to contact us immediately to discuss options for avoiding litigation and putting the right whale on a trajectory toward recovery.”

The calls to action were prompted by concerns that the North Atlantic right whale population has fallen in recent years after making steady gains from 1990 to 2010. Those concerns were greatly amplified in light of the deaths this past summer.

Official determinations about what killed the 16 whales have yet to be reached. But conservationists say many of the deaths are likely related to Canada’s expanding snow crab fishery, which unlike the American lobster trap fishery, has not been subject to whale-safe gear restrictions.

Twice in the past decade — once in 2009 and again in 2015 — Maine lobstermen have modified their gear arrangements to reduce the chances of entangling whales in the ropes that connect their traps to each other and to buoys on the surface. Fishermen expected in 2009 that it would cost them $5,000 to $15,000 each to switch from floating ground lines to more expensive sinking rope that also must be replaced more frequently.

The prospect of further regulation comes as Maine’s 2017 lobster harvest is on pace to hit its lowest value this decade.

Before American lobstermen face any new restrictions, regulators should require Canadian trap fishermen to modify their gear to make it less lethal to whales, according to Patrice McCarron, executive director of Maine Lobstermen’s Association.

“Further regulating U.S. fisheries does not solve that problem. …We have taken the entanglement issue very seriously, [but] it is an unfair playing field right now.”

Regulators also should consider the impact of climate change on the whale population, McCarron added. While some conservationists assert that entanglements are affecting the ability of females to reproduce, difficulty finding food that is relocating because of warming oceans might be more to blame, she said.

Kristen Monsell, senior attorney for Center for Biological Diversity, agreed that Canadian officials should require snow crab fishermen to modify their gear, as well as mandate that large ships move more slowly through the Gulf of St. Lawrence each summer.

U.S. and Canadian fishermen should use ropes designed to break more easily, to reduce the danger of entanglements, and more effort should be put into developing ropeless lobster traps, she said.

“If nothing changes, the North Atlantic right whale population could go extinct in about 20 years,” Monsell said, repeating a concern raised earlier this month at an annual meeting of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “We cannot let that happen.”

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....