Credit: Nick Sambides Jr. | BDN

ELLSWORTH, Maine – Federal regulators working to protect right whales need better data or they will hit the wrong target – Maine’s lobster industry, U.S. Sen. Angus King said.

A surprise guest Tuesday night at a meeting at Ellsworth High School, King joined Maine lobstermen in criticizing National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials for considering regulation changes that they say could make lobstering much more expensive and unsafe in order to save the endangered whales.

“There’s no question that I, and I suspect all of you, are concerned about the future of the species,” King said. “The question is, how do we save it? And how do you [hit] the right target? My problem is that when most of these rule changes affect the Gulf of Maine, where it doesn’t appear the whales are, it’s like bombing Brazil after Pearl Harbor.”

Credit: NOAA | NOAA

NOAA is collecting input from fishermen across New England in response to a dire problem – there are only about 400 right whales left and their No. 1 cause of death is entanglements in fishing lines, said Mike Asaro, a marine mammal and sea turtle researcher at NOAA.

Studies show that the 400 spend most of their lives in the Gulf of Maine, a transit point from Canadian waters and those farther south, Asaro said.

Of the 1,400 observed fishing-line entanglements with right whales since 1980, 100 had fishing gear on them. Of that 100, 13 had gear traced back to the point of entanglement, Asaro said.

According to a map Asaro provided, only two came within 15 miles of Maine’s coastline, in April 2002 and March 2004. The rest appear to be at least 30 miles from the coast or in Canadian waters.

Lobstermen who spoke at the forum assailed NOAA data as hopelessly vague, outdated or incomplete, but the vagueness was part of the point.

“It shows that we have come to the conclusion that anywhere there is a line into the water, there is a risk of entanglement,” Asaro said. “There is no area in the Gulf of Maine that right whales haven’t been sighted in.”

And 85 percent of observed whales had scars indicative of line entanglements, and the whales travel thousands of miles in their lifetimes, Asaro said.

Patrice McCarron, executive director of the 1,200-member Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said that NOAA’s research appears to be biased against Maine lobstermen despite the fact that state lobstermen have been found to pose the least hazard to right whales.

A key point to state lobstermen’s opposition, McCarron said, is that about 4,500 lobstermen ― or 80 percent of them ― fish within three miles of the coast, while almost all of the Maine whale sightings place the whales in waters much farther offshore.

McCarron said she knew of only one entanglement involving Maine lobster gear, on a live whale in 2002. The whales are also bypassing Maine feeding grounds and feeding in Canadian waters, she said.

“If right whales are at unique risk when they venture into Maine waters, that would have been documented,” McCarron said, “but more than 22 years of research and observation show no such heightened risk.”

NOAA officials admitted that their efforts have been hamstrung. Aircraft that track right whales usually cover large groupings. It’s not cost-effective to track individual right whales, and they can go anywhere, Asaro said.

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Meanwhile, right whales are dying fast. Eight whales have been found dead off Canada this summer, some from ship strikes or gear entanglement, and others of undetermined causes. Twenty eight have been killed in the last three years, during which only 12 calves were born, Asaro said. Twelve deaths were recorded last year.

NOAA is considering reducing the number of lobster traps allowed; making lobstermen use weaker, more escape-friendly lines; and making lobstermen color-code their lines to make it easier to track where entanglements occur. Ropeless lobster traps are available, though costly and unproven.

“We are all sitting here worried,” said Rocky Alley, president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Union. “This could impact us bad. If we don’t have a lobster industry, we have nothing.”

NOAA will gather testimony on Wednesday at Medomak Valley High School in Waldoboro and at South Portland High School on Thursday. Both meetings run from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

NOAA hopes to have proposed regulations ready for review by January. The new rules could be implemented in phases starting in January 2021.