Steuben lobsterman Mike Sargent might have to remove half his rope from the water to protect endangered right whales. Credit: Fred Bever | Maine Public

More than 60 lobstermen turned out last night for a meeting in Machias with federal regulators, where many fumed over proposed new regulations for the gear they use to haul their traps.

Federal regulators say lobstermen may have to remove as much as half their rope from the water to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale from potentially deadly entanglements.

Many lobstermen, including Harrington lobsterman Joel Strout, said the government should first make sure that Canada is taking action, because that’s where, over the last few years, 20 whales have been found dead, while none have been found off Maine.

“It’s just all a bunch of foolishness,” Strout said, “and if our neighbors to the north, Canada, can’t do at least what we have to do, I don’t think we should have to do anything.”

[Maine political leaders promise to press Trump for state’s lobster haulers opposed to new rules]

A federal scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Colleen Coogan, told lobstermen that the government has not been able to definitively trace the death of an endangered North Atlantic right whale to entanglement with gear from a Maine lobster trap.

But Coogan said federal law requires that the risk of harm be drastically reduced to less than one human-caused whale death a year.

“When there’s 600,000 lines, the chance of a whale interacting with your line might be low, but the chance of a whale interacting with line where’s there’s a lot of line, the chance goes up because there’s a lot of line,” Coogan said. “There’s only 400 whales.”

Or fewer, according to the latest NOAA estimates. But lobstermen said they’ve already taken action to protect the whales, including adopting sinking ground lines that stay out of the whales’ way — line that has proven expensive and dangerous for the fishermen themselves.

Charles Smith, a Jonesport lobsterman, held up a hand with two truncated fingers he said he injured handling such gear.

“I would like to see the state make sure that we get separated from everyone else on our markings, and let us prove that it’s not us that’s killing the whales,” Smith said.

Credit: Fred Bever | Maine Public

Federal regulators are also proposing that each state in the New England fishery use distinctive gear markings to track how and where whales are becoming entangled. They note, however, that while many whales bear the marks of rope injury, rope is recovered from only a small number of them.

Many Maine lobstermen said they have never seen an endangered North Atlantic right whale, and they are chafing that their industry could be hit by onerous, new gear restrictions.

[2 percent of the world’s North Atlantic right whales have died in the last 2 months]

But Zack Klyver, a naturalist who said he’s worked on whale watch tours out of Bar Harbor for 30 years, said they are here.

“On one trip that I was on we saw seven. We had one day we had fishermen call us and say they saw a group right whales and we went there and sure enough it was a big group of right whales,” Klyver said. “In total, looking at our whale watch data, and we do record it all, we take pictures of all the whales, we record all the locations, we have about 120 trips off the coast of Maine that we’ve seen right whales, in 30 years.”

Klyver added, however, that those sightings were mostly far offshore, in 300 feet of water or more. Some lobstermen said the whale watch tours are more of a threat to the whales than lobster gear.

Under a trade agreement with Canada, that country must demonstrate its whale protection rules comparable to those in the U.S., or suffer trade restrictions. But federal officials in Machias said the U.S. government still must regulate U.S. fisheries to protect the whales, whose numbers, the latest data show, appear to have fallen below 400.

The next federal scoping session in the proposal is set for Tuesday night at Ellsworth High School.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.

Related: This right whale gets partially disentangled off Cape Cod